It’s a delightful blend of magic and manners, as well as wit and romance. It’s the sort of book you can happily read while drinking a cup of tea on a rainy day, letting it transport you to a world where fairies are real (and sometimes deadly), and so is magic; where a scathing word can cut deeper than a blade, where dances are utterly serious, and where everyone should know their place.
Muna, the protagonist, isn’t particularly good at knowing her place. She begins her journey on a beach, with no memory of who she is, and with a sister. Muna is grounded, considerate, thoughtful, and unbending in the face of adversity. You can feel her quiet strength suffusing every line she speaks, and parse it from her quick thinking and craft in the face of danger. By contrast, her sister is imperious, sharp, sometimes thoughtless – but also fierce, witty, a being of air and fire . Their relationship is characterised by their love for each other. Though they bicker, squabble and banter as much as siblings do, there’s an undercurrent there of trust and affection, a bond which sustains each, even as it holds them to fight for each other. This familial bond is given a sympathetic rendering in the text, and it’s wonderfully drawn, as the pair of bickering siblings strive toward their mutual goals.
I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the friendship she has with Henrietta, one of the magieiennes of Britain, whose family issues probably deserve a novel all of their own. The two of them are kind to each other, supportive, fierce and endearing. The time they spend together, through thick and thin, was an absolute delight.
Still, Muna is our viewpoint on the world, and it’s with her we explore Regency Britain once again. Well, actually, we begin at Janda Baik, near the straits of Malacca The text brings to life the myths of the area – sometimes literally, with a vividly realised originality. The warmth and life of the island on which Muna and her sister find themselves has a constant dynamic thrum, and it’s brushed into being with care and vitality. The contrast of an island where power lives informally with its dependents, and cheek-by-jowl with its own mythology, is contrasted cleverly with the more formal, colder, more regimented world of Regency England, where Muna finds herself after something of a mishap while trying to trace her identity.
Identity is something of an issue here, actually. Muna is looking for who she is, but the English are more than happy to try and craft a role for her, layering on colonial expectations as well as gendered and social ones. Muna I thought, was expected to be a magicienne, of a strange (to the English), far away tradition, and to be at once a divergence from the expected role of women and one of its exemplars. Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t take this overly well. Still, it means we get to see Regency society once again – the parties where people are willing to talk about what dress someone’s wearing, the scandal of that one fellow who is up to his ears in debt, and of course, that cousin who ran away to join the faerie court, or, more scandalously, that daughter who now does magic. That baroque sense of style is back, and it wraps around the text, giving it a style and grandeur of the period. We do get to see more of the faerie realm as well, an odd, ineffably cruel place, where nothing is quite what you’d expect.
Muna is going into these places looking for herself. What she finds may be something else entirely.
The plot takes a while to get rolling, but don’t let the gentle tone of the characters disguise the scheming and steel which lies beneath. By the mid point I was intrigued to see what happened next, and where it was all going. By the last quarter, you would have had to pry it from my hands to stop me getting to the end.
This is a clever, thoughtful book. It explores a lot of interesting ideas around identity, gender, and empire. It draws and builds some marvellous relationships, which feel vivaciously human. And it’s a book which is hopeful, and a genuine balm for the soul. If you’re new to the series, maybe read Sorcerer to the Crown first; but I’d say if you’ve read the first book, you know what you’re getting into – this one is a delight, and worth your time.