Naomi Novik says it's like JSMN meets Heyer on the cover, and this is pretty true, although it's more like "Heyer reads JSMN and decides to write a fantasy about English magic". Which means that, while there's some stuff I like (which I will get to), there's a whole lot that grates on me.
Georgette Heyer has a rock-solid reputation for accuracy, which I suspect comes from decent descriptions of clothing, inheritances, and carriages and the use of now-obsolete or recently-coined words, which were all much harder to research during her day. But when people copy her speech patterns, they are really copying how people spoke in the early 20th century. Don't believe me? Read some of the dialogue of her fashionable gentlemen in your best Bertie Wooster voice and see if it seems out of place. The archetypical characters - gentlemen who just want to roll along happily in bachelor life, young ladies just out of the schoolroom who think reputations are for suckers and that getting into scrapes is great fun, and bullish, headstrong older ladies (who are often aunts) - are also really familiar to Wodehouse fans.
This all of course means that people who imitate Heyer are doing the same stuff. Cho is not an exception. There's a scene early on at the protagonist's club (not called the Drone's, but filled with men almost as useless) where a man complains that his aunt is forcing him to speak at a local girls' school, but then he fobs it off on the protagonist, Zacharias, the Sorcerer Royal, and I was like, "really? We're running with a stock Wodehouse opener?"
Zacharias goes to the school and meets Prunella, the female lead - a young lady who's the foster child of the woman who runs the school, just a bit older than the students. Which brings me to the second thing I hate in Heyerish Regency: the hero is very calm and proper and serious, while the heroine is a cheerful pixie, and they meet in a contrived way that allows one of them to think the other is disapproving or hoydenish; then they never talk about it so that it can be resolved. This sort of thing definitely has roots in (the general idea of) P&P, but it's also very reminiscent of the way Bertie Wooster will be found doing something stupid as part of a plan and doesn't get to live it down, so ... Anyway, Prunella, as a proper Heyer heroine, has an annoyingly "practical"/"sensible" manner that relates entirely to her manner and not her actual way of behaving, which is pretty unsensible. Zacharias really gives her no reason for a lack of trust, but she lies to him from the start, apparently for the sole purpose of driving the plot. This is especially frustrating because neither of them is white.
I really don't know how much is kosher for me to criticize here because the author is also not white, but the thing is, it feels weird to me that this wouldn't affect their dynamic. Zacharias is black - a freed slave (originally from the West Indies?) who was raised by the previous Sorcerer Royal - and Prunella is at this point strongly implied to be half-Indian. Zacharias recieves a lot of snubs from society and his position as SR is definitely resented by white magicians, while Prunella seems to have encountered basically no prejudice somehow. (TBH, I think the racism Zacharias deals with comes off as oddly textureless - he lives in a world where, if its history lines up with ours outside of the existence of magic, there was recently agitation against plantation slavery in the West Indies, a sugar boycott, the Zong massacre, Olaudah Equiano, Ignatius Sancho, the 1807 Slave Trade Act plus other following acts and treaties intended to limit the trade, and almost certainly other people and events that I'm just not aware of. But none of this really turns up, Zacharias isn't aware of abolitionism or other black people, society is just vaguely prejudiced against him. And if it doesn't match up with our history and people just accept slavery, it feels like that would be something that needs to be explored as well. Can't help but compare to Golden Hill, which acknowledged and dealt with slavery a lot more.) But there's no feeling of solidarity to their relationship, "even if we don't get along, it's good to have you around so I'm not the Only One," which I think anybody who's marginalized in some way usually feels when there's someone else.
And onto my third gripe, which is that Zacharias is being really dense right now. Here are some facts:
1. English magicians are sometimes allowed to go to the Fairy Court, but of late they tend to never return. However, Geoffrey Midsomar did actually come back recently.
2. When Zacharias finally goes to inspect the border with Fairy to figure out why England has less magic than it should, he finds it literally corked and impermeable.
3. Geoffrey is recently married and his wife seems like kind of a weirdo.
From my perspective, Geoffrey is clearly involved with the magic shortage and his wife is clearly a fairy. Even if you're not being genre savvy, though, you would think it's in the purview of the SR to go, "hm, you're the last person to come back from Fairy, I'm going to interview you to see if you noticed anything about this problem." Zacharias does not do anything like this and I anticipate being frustrated for another quarter of the book.
But there are good parts, too! For one thing, just the fact that the hero and heroine are PoC is fantastic. Heyer-style trad Regency romance tends to be especially conservative, with very little exploration of anything outside the aristocracy and gentry; modern writers are at least better than Heyer, who was conservative even for her time, but they still don't tend to get far out of the box. I desperately want more books like this (I just also want them to do it more thoughtfully).
The world-building is interesting. It's also not as deep as I would like, but unlike in JSMN, other countries have magic, which is explored a little bit through the diplomacy with a Malaysian country whose drama is exported to England when the sultan and his pregnant wife (whose baby will probably be kidnapped by fairies) come to town.
The mysteries are compelling. I've guessed that the squirrelly Geoffrey is involved in the magic stoppage, but why? And why are the fairies pissed off enough to do it? Or is he part of a plot to do it to mess with both sides? Prunella also has a leather bag that was her father's, which gave her a memory when she first touched it and which contains a silver memory ball that sings in her mother's voice as well as seven familiars' eggs (in addition to magic being in short supply, no familiars have come out of Fairy in a long time). What's up with all that? I want to know!
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