The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen M. Beckett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This book gets four stars from me somewhat reluctantly, but the world and concept, the atmosphere and some of the beautiful passages carry it from three stars in other aspects. Take the socially rigid world of Jane Austen's novel, combine it with magic and given bookish heroine Ivy a mission to uncover the mystery of her father's illness, and you have the essence of The Magicians and Mrs. Quent. Other threads move through this novel - the adventures of dapper gentleman Rafferdy and his poor, struggling friend Eldyn, with the mysterious power to weave shadows - but Ivy's story is the centerpiece.
I confess that I have yet to read any of Austen's novels, though I've seen films of I think every book (including a bleary 2am viewing of Northanger Abby at a sleepover where I'm not sure the viewing millieu made the story more or less comprehensible), but I loved Jane Eyre (the book!) and I saw the influences of both very clearly and wonderfully here. The banter, the social awareness, it crackles and snaps, as alive as any character. Sometimes, I found the first person section was so close to Jane Eyre that it approached pastiche, but the world is deep, consistent and intriguing. It brims with conflict and history.
My main problem with the novel is that these threads didn't come completely together, cross or mesh in a convincing way. Emblematic of this is the way that the novel abruptly leaps into first person for the middle section and then returns to third person for the conclusion, picking up the threads of characters not seen for a hundred and fifty pages. Important events are glossed over or summarized, time compressed artificially to keep the action moving while still accounting (partly) for what happened during Ivy's narration. (I also found the pretext of writing imaginary letters to her father to be a thin justification for first person.) The net sum of this: it makes the initial section of the book feel like an extended prologue.
Indeed, that's indicative of a larger problem in the novel. So much happened in the book (particularly with the romantic storylines) that was summarized or skipped over, when I felt it was crucial to feel every moment of the characters and their response. I don't understand the logic of Beckett's choices of what to skim. By contrast, the final climactic scene felt somewhat ridiculous to me because of the large amount of minutiae the characters had to wade through.
I did like the way the Ivy and Rafferdy storyline played out. It would have been so easy for Beckett to take an uncomfortable and obvious route when they reunited, and I am very glad for it. (I can't be more specific without spoiling!)
I am not entirely reconciled to the use of magic in the novel. It seems to add insult to the injury of the social system and point towards a conclusion that women can only act successfully by influencing and directing men. There are some elements in the book that lead in the other direction, but I wasn't quite satisfied that they undermined this unpalatable message. I understand, of course, that Beckett isn't required to make his world "fair," but the way it was portrayed grated on me.
But in the end, this is a perfect example of a book that carried through to a satisfying conclusion while leaving fertile ground for a sequel, and one I will eagerly read.
Oh, and the title is awful. If one has to read over half the book before one has even an inkling what it means, it had better be a lightbulb moment, not just an affirmation of fact.
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