I was about halfway through reading, and thoroughly enjoying, Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent when I decided to pop online to check out the reviews. It’s a rather irritating habit (irritating to me; I can’t imagine that anyone else cares), but I like see if every one else agrees with my own assessment. The first review I read (I tried to find it again to link, but alas, it seems to have vanished) offered this critique: “nothing new.” For the record, that doesn’t seem to be the majority opinion, but frankly, I can’t say I disagree. None of the ingredients, or few of them, anyway, are what you’d call groundbreaking. But then, it’s not always the ingredients that make the stew; it’s how they’re mixed. Sure, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is pastiche. But it’s very good pastiche. Outstanding, even. My wife and I took turns reading it aloud to one another, and we had an absolute blast.
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a fantasy set in an alternate world that has strong echos of an England that would be familiar to Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. In fact, the author’s voice is a deliberate pastiche of Jane Austen’s in the opening chapters, and of the Brontes and even Dickens in latter ones. The plot certainly carries with it echoes of Austen and the Brontes: comedy of manners, a strong emphasis on marriage proposals, a gothic country house where the brooding but romantic master hides a secret, falling ill in someone else’s house, the entailed house, and couples carefully (and at times sadly) avoiding the “inappropriate” marriage. Not to mention a Dickens-worthy subplot concerning a young man of good family fallen on hard times and working as a scrivener in a counting house to provide for his frail sister.
The echos extend beyond plot: Beckett does a terrific job of suggesting the wit, atmosphere, and mood of his sources without merely mimicking them. More, he does it without ever coming across as stilted, dated, or musty. He strikes a pace and tone that’s decidedly modern. More, he writes complex, fully-developed characters that are of their time and culture—his women, especially, are strong and determined even a restrictive age that Austen would recognize. They are not anachronistically feminist or democratic, for example. But they’re not pushovers, either. They are compelling. Nonetheless, the structure of their society places restrictions on men and women of all classes, although to the modern reader, at least, the plight of women and the poor are more likely to make us cringe. Women, for example, are not allowed to perform magic (a story reason is given, but it’s a spoiler so I’ll avoid talking about it) but the lively, intelligent, and charismatic young heroine, Ivy Lockwell, consoles herself with historical study, thereby placing herself in a position to become a hero.Beckett doesn’t shy away from the sex and class restrictions of a society that reflects the England of Austen and Dickens. Nor does he use the tropes of an alternate fantasy world to sidestep them. Instead, he uses them to build compelling characters and to tell a story that’s truly gripping. He doesn’t skimp on the world building, either. While Beckett’s in Invarel is a mirror of Austen-era London, it has a cosmology that is utterly unique, and a subtle, creeping mythology that as unique and delicious as anything in, say, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. His descriptions are vivid and lovely to read—especially his word-paintings of the shadowy underbelly of the Illusionists shows on mysterious Durrow Street, or the streets and alleys were dark-clad highway men prowl, or the taverns and coffee houses where students and intellectuals question authority in whispered tones.
I should say something about the story, although it’s not really one that lends itself to a paragraph. Our heroine, Ivy Lockwell, is the unmarried daughter of a family stricken with poverty after her magician father went mad. She meets the aristocratic Dashton Rafferdy (I would have called him dashing, but you knew that already, didn’t you?) and, despite obvious mutual attraction, can not pursue a relationship. Rafferdy, meanwhile, has strange and unsettling encounters with a gentleman magician. Ivy travels from her home to become a governess at the country estate of Heathcrest, a Bronte-analogue complete with a brooding and mysterious Rochester stand-in. Soon, Ivy discovers an ancient story wrapped in the dark mythology of a sinister wood, still working its will on the world. And I haven’t even mentioned all of the lead characters! Mysteries, romances, magic, illusions, cons, dark prophesies, and even revolutions abound—enough to keep you turning the pages long after bedtime.
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is complex, but the pace is relentless, the story gripping, and the characters unforgettable. It’s a page turner with smarts and depth, and its a terrific, truly fun read. I hope you’ll give it a try.
One sequel, The House on Durrow Street, has already been published, and another is coming. I can’t wait.