Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Microreview [Novella]: Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver

A magical slice of life in 1920s London that’s surprisingly substantial for its small size.

Cover art by Marlowe Lune

Uncommon Charm packs an awful lot into a very (very) tiny package - looking at race, gender, sexuality, class, magic, ghosts, religion, murder… the whole gamut. And how does it manage to cram all that in to its 94 pages? It has approximately no plot at all. Which sounds like a problem, but somehow really isn’t.

The story follows Julia, a bright young socialite recently expelled from her elite school, and her mother’s new student Simon, a young Jewish magician of complicated parentage, as they become friends and adults together. They explore their families’ tangled and troubled relationship, past and present, while each begins to stumble towards the path they may follow in their life, if not the one they necessarily always expected.

Simon is a very easy to love character – shy and earnest, someone with a working class upbringing suddenly thrust into privilege, and not really knowing what to do with himself while there. He sees ghost, studies magic, umms gently when spoken to unexpectedly and cares very much about impressing Lady Aloysia, the foremost magician of England, it appears, and also Julia’s somewhat eccentric mother. 

He becomes all of this more prominently through the narration of his complete opposite, Julia, bubbly, vivacious and brimming with confident entitlement, someone who very much expects the world to right itself beneath her feet. And yet despite that, she manages to be an entirely engaging and sympathetic narrator. Her narration never stays on one line of thought for very long, but somehow never irritates while doing so, and instead propels the book along at a raring pace, furnishing us very naturally with tidbits of information and snippets of gossip that would otherwise be difficult to drop into the narrative smoothly. She has an incredibly distinctive voice through the text – I feel like if you gave me a snippet of something else the author wrote from her viewpoint I’d be able to spot it immediately – and this feels extremely critical to setting the story in its time. She sounds so perfectly, precisely like a posh 1920s London girl, right from the first moment. Possibly the critical saving grace of Julia’s personality though is that despite her poshness, her obvious delight in herself and how terribly amusing she is, is that she’s fundamentally nice. She behaves instantly with kindness to the strange boy who’s come to live in her house, and it is through her encouragement that he comes, little by little, out of his shell.

She’s also a perfect foil for her quiet, serious and contemplative mother, lurking in the corners of the story, swooping in occasionally to deliver us intriguing insights into the magic of the world, before disappearing back off to study in her own, particular way.

Such as it is, the plot centres around uncovering what exactly happened to Lady Aloysia’s long-dead fiancé, the brother of Simon’s recently revealed father, a Russian prince in exile of some form. The two families’ stories link up and back together before the birth of either protagonist, and it is a story about searching back through those tangles, trying to understand where things came from and why they are as they are.

But the process of that searching is more a backdrop than the point. What it allows the book to do is show us a world in flux, where a woman can be a prominent magician (but perhaps only because she’s aristocracy), where an illegitimate, working-class son can maybe make a name for himself, where a girl can carve her own path away from her mother and assumed life of society and marriage, and where they can be friends through this. It is a book of quiet queerness, of bending the rules and making new ones, of exploring the boundaries, set in the perfect time period for it.

It is also a book of family trauma, of acknowledging the past so you can meet the future. Of the quiet nastiness that can lurk behind the smile of the most charming people. Of literal, and figurative, ghosts, who can only be really understood once confronted.

It is also a book of neurodivergence, of looking at the world in the way that works best for you, and learning to create the framework that suits yourself and your needs.

Reading it felt like watching an episode in an ongoing series, seeing a snippet of something longer, with richer, deeper themes than one episode can convey, but because the framework was doing such a good job, you don’t need to have seen the rest for it all to make sense. It is the most slice of life slice of life you can read, an excerpt that doesn’t feel beholden to structuring itself as if it’s a whole novel, and is instead content to be that slice, to pick up in the middle of a story and end with all the endings still possibilities (though with enough resolution to know you’ve finished the episode).

A lot of novellas feel like short novels – structurally the same, just abbreviated. But this feels like something else, and I think part of its plentiful charm arises from that. It’s not trying to be anything other than itself, and it succeeds marvellously.


The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10 

Bonuses: +1 perfect encapsulation of a period of history not often done in fantasy

Nerd Coefficient: 9/10

Reference: E. Bergslien and K Weaver, Uncommon Charm [Neon Hemlock Press, 2022]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat. @chloroform_tea