Thursday, April 13, 2023

Review: Death by Silver by Melissa Scott and Amy Griswold

Death by Silver is a classic murder mystery that brings gay romance and a fascinating magic system to Edwardian England.

Cover by Matthew Bright

In 2013, Amy Griswold and Melissa Scott self-published Death by Silver, going on to win a Lambda Award the following year. Now in time for the tenth anniversary, the book is being republished by Queen of Swords Press.

In this historical fantasy, magic can be learned by anyone with the right education. Ned Mathey is a metaphysician who trained at Oxford and who is finding money a bit tight after establishing his business as a practitioner. When he is approached by the father of his childhood bully to check the family's silver for a curse, he is reluctant to take the job. However, the money is decent and it is a straightforward job... up until his client turns up dead days later. To help clear his name, he seeks help from Julian Lynes, boyhood friend and lover, now a private detective.

Death by Silver deftly weaves fantasy, romance and mystery together into a seamless whole. The natural comparisons here are with KJ Charles's series A Charm of Magpies and with Jordan Hawk's Whybourne and Griffin. However, it is worth noting that the romance is different in a few key elements. Death by Silver opens with an existing relationship between the protagonists. Having met at school and become lovers, Ned and Julian drifted apart when they went to university, though never entirely lost touch. Having recently reconnected, their relationship is best characterised as friends with benefits. Each wants something more, but are uncertain of the other and unwilling to make the first move. This relies on a reluctance to communicate which may annoy some readers, even if the reasons for this reluctance are somewhat understandable on both sides.

Another difference from the comp titles is the treatment of sex. While it unequivocally takes place, the action fades to black rather than features explicitly on the page, which may suit readers of historical fantasy and mystery rather more than dedicated readers of romance and erotica.

However, even though the story features no explicit sex, it is by no means without landmines. I would give content warnings for bullying, as well as physical and sexual abuse. Most of this occurs in flashback scenes detailing Ned and Julian's time at boarding school together.

The main characters are a study in contrasts, tending to fall into the sunshine/storm-cloud trope but with a little more nuance than usual. Ned is almost universally beloved, a sportsman who also has a talent for magic. While he may not be exactly cheery all the time, he nevertheless has a relatively sanguine outlook on life.

Julian, on the other hand, tends to be the sharper of the two. He has an ongoing war with his landlady and a tendency to use magic in the place of drugs, to energise or calm himself down. He has more of an affinity for literature and art, though he detests the opera, and is from a lower class background than Ned.

Unsurprisingly for a mystery, there is a strong theme of justice throughout the book. This is one of the more subtle areas of difference between the main characters. Julian, of course, is the more extreme of the two. Even as a boy, he had a well developed sense of injustice and is inclined to speak out, paired with a willingness to take matters into his own hands where society turns a blind eye. Ned tended to go along with the conventionally accepted, even if it isn't really fair. He tempered Julian's more extreme impulses. As they grow and mature, these attitudes shift closer together.

As is often the case in m/m romance, the female characters are rather less detailed than their male counterparts and tended to serve as plot functions. However, I recognise that it is hard to flesh out every character and still have a plausibly long suspect list for a murder mystery. One of the best realised female characters was Ned's secretary, Miss Frost, who was a charming during her somewhat rare appearances. Keen to study magic, she is hampered by society's attitudes regarding what is appropriate for women. Nevertheless, she is able to offer some important insights that further the investigation.

Which brings me to the magic system. This was for me one of the most fascinating elements of the book. Death by Silver is the first in the Lynes and Mathey series, a punny name that, in addition to referring to the title characters, is also an allusion to the magic system. Magic or planetary squares form the basis for this system, and are an element that has been part of occult practice for hundreds of years. Much like sudoku, planetary squares are a grid of numbers where each line and column adds up to the same number—generally one significant to the planet associated with the particular grid. This is then paired with alphabets so that sigils can be generated by tracing a path between the numbers that correspond to the letters of any given word. Hence lines and math.

The story at times lacks a bit of clarity around how a given spell is cast, perhaps relying on knowledge of the historical process to fill in the gaps or simply allowing space for readers to use their imaginations. However, where it excels is in the worldbuilding tied to the magic. Planetary squares lend themselves well to the kind of institutionalised learning that's featured in Death by Silver; they become just another thing to be learned alongside multiplication tables and Latin vocabulary. This is reinforced by adding a kind of grammar system to the construction of spells—get the word order wrong and you could have quite the mess on your hands.

There's also an interesting intersection with the time period. While I'm a little hazy on the exact year, the technology and fashion suggest the Edwardian Era. Certainly, we're post Industrial Revolution, with its ability to mass produce items. This includes magic kits; trace the sigils as they are laid out for you and you too can trap a burglar or banish your acne. Or, more likely, you could lose your money and end up needing to call in a trained metaphysician to clean up the result. Such details show the consideration that has been given to the worldbuilding and provide a wonderful richness to the setting.

The plot is a classic mystery format. I found the ultimate villain perhaps a touch predictable, but not overly so.

All in all, I found it a delight to read and can easily see how it earned a Lammy. The sequel is due to be released in December and I am already looking forward to it.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 8/10

Bonuses: +1 for excellent magic world building, +1 for deft balancing of fantasy, romance and mystery elements

Penalties: -1 for flat female characters, -1 for the lack of communication between characters

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10

POSTED BY: Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a writer, binge reader, tabletop gamer & tea addict. @elizabeth_fitz@


Death by Silver. Griswold, Amy, and Scott, Melissa (Queen of Swords Press, 2023)

The Magpie Lord. Charles, K.J. (KJC Books, 2013)

Widdershins. Hawk, Jordan L. (Widdershins Press LLC, 2012)