Monday, February 11, 2019

Series Review: The Harwood Spellbook by Stephanie Burgis

A trio of magical, historical romances offering the most engaging, well-realised type of comfort reading.

Art by Leesha Hannigan
As winter continues its reign of terror over this part of the northern hemisphere, I've been doing my best to introduce a steady diet of comfort reading into what can become a pretty dark and dense TBR. That's why I've been so glad to finally make time for Stephanie Burgis, and particularly her Hardwood Spellbook series, an alternate historical romance set in a magical regency era reminiscent of Zen Cho, or Kate Elliott's Spiritwalker trilogy. The series currently consists of two "main" novellas - Snowspelled and the forthcoming Thornbound, as well as a shorter prequel novella, Spellswept, set fifteen years or so before the events of the main chronology, and from a different point of view, but with many of the same characters.

The focus of the series is Cassandra Harwood, a young woman born to an elite Anglish family. For 1700 years, elite men and women have maintained a balance of power by which only women can go into politics, but only men are allowed to study magic, and for families like the Harwoods, male and female children are expected to follow that most elite career path exactly. That seems limiting in a number of ways, and Cassandra's path has put her in collision with the most obvious taboo: she's a talented magician and is desperate to study magic, taking the place of her older brother, Jonathan, who is more than happy to step aside and follow his non-magical passion for history. To complicate matters further, members of the Boudiccate, the council that governs the country, must be married to a mage - which means that, despite general acceptance of same-sex relationships and the understanding that not all men can do magic, politically ambitious women must marry from a very limited group of men.

Cover by Ravven
What's fascinating about the main series - and while Spellswept is a delightful story and adds a lot to our overall understanding of Cassandra and her future sister-in-law Amy, it's worth reading after the initial introduction to the characters that Snowspelled provides - is that by the time we meet Cassandra, she's not the driven mage struggling against discrimination in her chosen path. Instead, in her own words, Cassandra is no longer "functional". Having pushed herself too hard in pursuit of securing the respect of her peers, she's burned out her own magic and is now unable to cast any spells at all. Luckily for us, this doesn't signal the end of any of her adventures, and Snowspelled and Thornbound deliver a tense pair of magically-driven mysteries: the first, set in a snowed-in house party, and the second in the Harwood's own estate next to a menacing forest. In both cases, unknown human meddling has upset the balance with their near neighbours, the elves and the fae, and it's up to Cassandra to untangle the mixture of human and fantastical motivations behind the mystery and save the day, all without a magical spell in sight.

As a reader, it's hard it is not to fixate on Cassandra's lack of magic, and how happy she - and we - would be if it returned, and to unconsciously expect that as an ending. What Burgis does so well is not to dismiss or deny that disappointment, but to make it very clear that the happy endings Cassandra and her family (including magic-school-rival-turned-fiance-turned-ex-fiance-turned-husband Wrexham) achieve are valid and satisfying even if they don't lead to undoing her past mistakes. Cassandra's response to the overwhelming hostility she has faced in achieving her ambitions has been to close herself off and attempt to achieve things on her own - even though Spellswept makes it clear that she has always had allies among her family - and each entry in the series explores that in a different way. Along the way, the story makes it abundantly clear that despite not being able to single-handedly achieve the reform she wanted by pushing through with blunt force, Cassandra there are perhaps even better ways to achieve her goal while also working with the family and allies around her. All three of these books are capital R Romance, so Cassandra's reconciliation with Wrexham and Amy's relationship with Jonathan are big elements of the "happily ever afters", but I very much enjoyed the fact that these relationships don't take total precedence over other family ties or personal goals, even if they sometimes provide more narrative fuel. Of course, the satisfaction of these endings relies on the strength of the main characters, and all three novellas benefit from a main cast who shine even when the limited space available means others are less fleshed out. Llewellyn, in Spellswept, has a particularly unfortunate time of it, though astute readers will note that it's because he's actually the worst.

Art by Leesha Hannigan
The worldbuilding of these novellas is quite focused, and there's a satisfying symmetry and an interesting power dynamic to the "women are politicians, men are mages" thing even if it might not stand up to super close scrutiny as a system of power distribution. Thornbound does add an interesting wrinkle when a character points out how many countries have a traditional patriarchal structure, which might also overturn the Boudiccate any moment if women were to give up or amend the political structure in any way. Certainly, Cassandra's struggles to be accepted as a magician feel more like someone of a marginalised gender hitting a glass ceiling than the disbelief and in-group policing (and/or appropriation) which might follow a privileged person taking on a marginalised person's social role. That's not to say that the conflict the book recounts isn't already compelling, but I do wonder if the complexities of Angland's gender politics might be fleshed out in later volumes. I'd also love to see the apparent precariousness of this political system explored, especially as it holds an interesting mirror to the storylines with the elves (in Snowspelled) and fae (in Thornbound), in which treaties must be upheld because of the unknowable but almost-certainly-dire consequences for humanity if they aren't, as doled out by non-human intelligences who aren't at all interested in nice human answers. There's a lot to explore here, and while I can see this series leaning in to the "Lady Trent" tactic of glossing over anything Cassandra doesn't find interesting in her own story, its nice to have the perspective from Amy (and other points of view in future) to hopefully expand on some of these questions and themes.

Ultimately, this series is one which takes a generous interpretation of human nature and applies it to the concept of sacrifice - of what we give up, when, and how, of what it does or doesn't help us achieve, and about how to cut one's losses and accept the best circumstances available. While there are a couple of genuinely unpleasant characters, most of the interpersonal conflict in Cassandra's world stems from those who have given something up in order to protect what they see as the good of society: whether that be upholding a status quo and forcing themselves into a particular mould to do so, or pushing for reforms at the expense of their own wellbeing. The result is a trio of well plotted, tense, emotionally satisfying novellas which punch well above their length in terms of thematic weight. Comfort reading this series may be, but it's comfort at its most engaging, balancing trauma and intrigue with a great cast of characters and some very satisfying - romantic and otherwise - outcomes.

The Math:

Snowspelled: 8/10 Great introduction to the series, start here. Not-so-cosy winter themes perfect for cold nights under a blanket.

Spellswept: 7/10 A lovely diversion into the past. Slighter, but Amy remains a force to be reckoned with.

Thornbound: 8/10 A return to Cassandra and a great continuation of the overall themes, introducing new characters and settings and a fascinating central mystery.

Overall: 8/10

POSTED BY: Adri is a semi-aquatic migratory mammal most often found in the UK. She has many opinions about SFF books, and is also partial to gaming, baking, interacting with dogs, and Asian-style karaoke.

Reference: Burgis, Stephanie. Snowspelled [Five Fathoms Press, 2017]
"Spellswept, " first published in The Underwater Ballroom Society [Five Fathoms Press, 2018]
Thornbound [Five Fathoms Press, 2019]