meilufay’s #CBR4 review #50 The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett
I think I should start by saying that this is not a book I would ever pick up for myself. I own it because an acquaintance gave me the entire trilogy. Having spent my childhood and teens obsessed with 19th century English novels (either ones that were written in that century or set in it), I am very very particular about fictions which attempt to create a fantasy version of either the Regency or Victorian eras. Any mistakes made in recreating either the language or the complex social interactions will completely prevent me from deriving any enjoyment from reading the book. When an author does this well, I’m absurdly grateful and pleased (I am thinking specifically of Naomi Novik and Susannah Clark); when she does it less well, I become very very cranky. Imagine my reaction, then, when I read this on the flyleaf of this novel:
What if there were a fantastical cause underlying the social constraints and limited choices confronting a heroine in a novel by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë?
Jane Austen lived most of her life in the 18th century and died during the Regency of George IV. She was a Georgian writer. Charlotte Brontë was born the year before Jane Austen died. She was a Victorian writer. Not only do they come from different eras, they also come from different social and educational backgrounds. Moreover, their writing styles are VERY VERY different. To conflate Jane Austen with Charlotte Bronte simply because they are both English women writers from the 19th century would be almost as bad as to conflate Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn with Mikhail Bulgakov simply because they are both Russian male writers who lived in the 20th century. Of course, you can explore any similarities between two writers as a way of discussing common themes across their works, but to merge them into the same category as one another? No.
See? I haven’t even started talking about the book and ALREADY I am cranky.
With this novel, Beckett actually proves that Austen and Brontë do not sit comfortably together in the same narrative. In the first part of the novel, Beckett attempts to write like Jane Austen. The first two hundred pages of the book are a socially conscious romantic comedy in which the heroine, Ivy, a middle-class girl, falls in love with Mr. Rafferdy, who is an aristocrat. As much as possible, Beckett apes Jane Austen’s prose style and I found it extremely grating. Then, abruptly, circumstances change for the heroine and she moves to a lonely house on the moors. The writing style shifts from third-person omniscient pseudo-Austen to first-person pseudo-Brontë. Ivy is introduced to a new romantic interest who bears more than a passing resemblance to Jane Eyre‘s Mr. Rochester. Suddenly, instead of existing inside a romantic comedy, we are now in a gothic mystery. It reminds me of what China Miéville said (to Naomi Novik, in fact) about mashing up genres:
Thankfully, Beckett only continues this pseudo-Brontëist writing going for another hundred and fifty pages and finally, finally, just writes the rest of the novel. The second and third books of the series are written in a third person omniscient neutral voice that I wish Beckett had applied to the first half of the first book as well. Obviously, trying to write like two of the most famous writers in English, while an interesting exercise, is almost calculated to draw unflattering comparisons between your prose and that of the justly more celebrated novelists you are stylistically copying.
Aside from the above issues, all of which were a constant source of annoyance while reading the book, I was mildly entertained by the narrative. I was interested enough to keep on reading but was never really enthralled by magical world which Beckett has created. In fact, I was made uneasy with the fact that Beckett turned sexual differences (male and female, homosexual and heterosexual) into limits on ways the characters could use magic. Women were witches (they could never perform spells, no matter how hard they tried to), men were magicians (unable to perform the “natural” magic that women can do, but able to use spells), gay men were illusionists (able neither to connect to the natural world like women nor to speak spells like men but able to trick the eye with illusions). Simplifying your magical system along sexual lines is … problematic for me. In fact, I would say that regardless of authorial intent, the world and the book seem MORE sexist than the real conditions under which Austen and Brontë wrote. I will give the book credit for keeping me reading (I don’t automatically finish any book just because I’ve started it) but that is almost the only thing I can give it credit for. The writing style was, well, let us say it failed in its narrative and stylistic objectives; the characters were two-dimensional and often annoying; and the world-building was shallow. I am quite thankful I’m finally writing this review so I can get this book off my desktop and donate it to the local Goodwill. Perhaps someone else will get more pleasure out of it.