The world is a cunning blend of the strange and the nominally familiar. This is a London with the sort of social attitudes seen before in Austen or Dickens. Women are social inferiors, to be cared for by men – husbands, brothers, fathers. There’s a monarchy here, with a penchant for Empire and adventurism lurking in the background of every interaction. The prose has something of the Regency period about it as well – a cadenced lilt of refinement permeating each word on the page.
There’s a sense of gentility here, and a style of emotional restraint that wouldn’t be out of place in an Austen-esque romance. That said, between the terraced homes and the toiling poor, the nouveau riche and the social climbers…in the gap between them all is the Royal Society. These are men and women who can do something others cannot. They’re a parallel aristocracy, people who can move objects with their mind, power fine machinery or, perhaps, set things on fire. The Society has the power to draft anyone showing their talents, and deal with any who attempt to hide their magical light under a bushel. Theoretically a progressive institution in a somewhat constrained society – they’re as obdurate a power centre as any other, and filled with their own conspiracies and more than one hidden agenda.
The central character is Charlotte Gunn; she fills many roles fiancée, childrens book illustrator, dutiful daughter, loving sister – and, apparently potential magic user. She’s a quick thinker, somewhat constrained by the expectations have placed on her, but willing to sbvert them if she wants to – for example when becoming an artist. The society has no allure for someone wanting to retain their independence, to shape who they are to their own desires, and not to the institutions which surround them, be it matrimony or the Society. Charlotte also has a deep affection for her brother, who appears to have both a weak constitution and a similarly weak ability to do magic himself. If Charlotte is a strong-willed individual, shaping herself within the storm of circumstance, then her brother may be thought of as swept away by that storm – each effort to do better ending in a return to the family home. Andrew is an excellent contrast to Charlotte – quiet, sufficiently reflective to see the impact his illness has on his family, with an edge of bitterness. But the two siblings form an effective duo when they work together, even if we see more of Charlotte’s focued and driven temperament.
There’s some rather fun secondary characters here as well – the Gunn parents have more than a splash of Thomas Hardy about them, and their efforts to do right by their children are charming even if ineffectual. The lords of the Royal Society are in some ways appropriately strange – defying gravity or shifting watch gears, and in others more what we may be accustomed to. I particularly enjoyed the bluff Mage-Lord who ran a milling concern in the North! There’s some appropriately unpleasant low-level villainy going on as well – I would have liked to explore these more thoroughly, but the antagonists that existed were appropriately vile.
The plot is something of a coming-of-age tale, as Charlotte attempts to care for her brother, resolve the financial travails of her family, and avoid bringing up her own talents and sacrificing her independence on the altar of Empire. It’s an entertaining story, which carefully guides the reader to familiarity with the world, whilst throwing up enough conflict and alarums to keep the pages turning. There’s a relative paucity of duels, explosions, or demonstrative wizardry – but there’s careful investigation, and a steadily climbing tension which make the book rather difficult to put down. On that basis, and brief as the story is, I’d say this blend of period drama and magic is worth picking up – I for one am looking forward to further instalments.