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Book Review: The Harwood Spellbook (series) by Stephanie Burgis

Tuesday, February 4, 2020 - 07:00
cover image: Moontangled

I think I have enjoyed every single thing I’ve read from Stephanie Burgis, though I haven’t real any of her middle grade series. When preparing to recording an interview with her for the Lesbian Historic Motif Podcast on the occasion of the release of Moontangled, I read the entire series leading up to it. Herewith are some briefer-than-usual reviews of the component parts.

Usually I copy my blog reviews in their entirety over to Goodreads, Amazon, and iBooks, but to avoid awkward repetition, this time I’ll do a general background review that only lives on the blog and then individual “likes” on each book for the commercial sites.

The series posits an alternate history in which 1) magic exists, and 2) during the Roman invasion of Britain, Boudicca was able to successfully repel the occupation, teamed up with her magic-wielding second husband, establishing a model in which women fulfill their natural role in government as the practical, hard-headed sex (selected to join the ruling Boudiccate), supported by their magical husbands who are better suited to the more emotional realm of sorcery.

In the only alt-historical aspect that I had to work to get past, this has made little disruption to the basic outlines and flavor of society in succeeding centuries such that we arrive in the early 19th century with a culture that is recognizably “Regency”, softened by Angland’s international affiliations being due to extensive trade rather than colonial conquest. Probably best not to poke at the questions too sharply (especially for someone like me who did much the same thing in my own alt-Regency series).

The central through-line of the series revolves around Cassandra Harwood, born to a prominent political family but far more interested in learning magic than strategy. Because, of course, it’s not the case that women can’t do magic, only that they don’t. Just as it’s not the case that men can’t be practical and logical, only that they aren’t asked to be. Cassandra--and her brother who similarly bucks gender expectations by declining to learn magic--begins the process of upending the structure of her world by winning the right to study formal magic. And then the consequences start arriving.

Oh, and there are elves and fairies and supernatural creatures with whom the human residents of Angland have very tenuous peace treaties...

Snowspelled

In the aftermath of a calamitous magical mistake, Cassandra Harwood is trying to put her life back together in the middle of an unnatural snowstorm as the treaties with the fair folk are fraying dangerously. I very much liked how the initial social conflict (“Argh, my family are trying to throw me together with a man I’m trying to avoid!”) isn’t at all what it seems and we’re led through several different understandings of their back-story as the main conflict progresses. The world-building is intense without taking over the plot and the conflicts never feel manufactured. Charming and intriguing.

Spellswept

A prequel best read after you’d been introduced to the Harwood Spellbook series. The (future) sister-in-law of the central character of Snowspelled is a strong-willed woman who goes after what (and whom) she wants and brings about a satisfying conclusion by refusing to abandon the dreams of any of the people she loves. I particularly enjoyed the casual ethnic diversity of the characters.

Thornbound

Cassandra Harwood has established her girls’ school for magic but the accreditation board arrives with a magical curse in their wake. A bit of light mystery, more details of the engagements between human and supernatural characters in Burgis’s alt-historical Angland, and a quiet set-up for my favorite characters in the series to get their own story. I really enjoy how this series solves plot conflicts with good will and the building of bridges.

Moontangled

Juliana Banks and Caroline Fennell have been secretly engaged for...well, for the last couple books, but there’s one major obstacle to their love. No, not the fact that they’re both women, but the fact that in order to have a successful career as part of the ruling Boudiccate of Angland, Caroline must marry a magician. And until the establishment of the Thornfell (Women’s) College of Magic, only men were magicians. Now that Juliana is a star pupil at Thornfell, why has Caroline grown cold and distant? This is an engaging romance of miscommunication and mistaken self-sacrifice, complicated by a meddling wood-fairy who has her own agenda. A fun and heartwarming romance that pushes all my Regency fantasy buttons.

Major category: 
historical