When magick has fallen from fashion: being a review of Galen Beckett’s The Magicians and Mrs. Quent

Galen Beckett’s debut novel, a fantasy of manners entitled The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (Spectra, 2008), came as an absolutely delightful surprise. I had heard absolutely nothing about the book or author until a perspicacious friend thrust a copy upon me.

Reader, I was engaged.

Mr. Beckett is a skilled writer, demonstrating unusual control of his voice and prosody for someone at the start of his career. Indeed, the attention to language—and to the structure of his narrative—and to the individuality of the female characters—were such that I initially suspected “Galen Beckett” might be a pseudonym for an established author (it proves to be so) and a woman (and here I was wrong).

That said, I remain very favorably impressed. This book’s primary protagonist, one Miss Ivy Lockwell, is resolute, intelligent, and nuanced—quite exceptional. Chaz Brenchley writes women so well, but most male authors tend to extremes in portraying women. Some of the other female characters do not fare so well—the sister of Mr. Garritt, for example, is rendered so much a caricature of feminine uselessness to serve the plot that I find I cannot recollect her given name. However, even such minor characters as Mrs. Marsdel are quite engaging and individuals.

Ivy herself is a caution, and fortunately the story focuses chiefly on her, with two male protagonists (the Dickensian Garritt and the Mr. Darcy-esque Rafferty) relegated to supporting roles. There is a disconcerting tendency for minor characters to find themselves sidelined conveniently throughout the narrative, but in a story so thick with tertiary roles, that’s inescapable.

I found myself quite thoroughly engaged by Ivy’s attempts to avoid penury, keep her family together, rescue her invalid magician father, and—eventually—brave a fate most foul in defense of her family and her home. The story reaches a satisfactory stopping place, admittedly somewhat hastily after the affection lavished upon the worldbuilding—and the author’s website reveals that a sequel is anticipated this September.

Beckett is drawing heavily on Austen, Brontë, and Dickens throughout this novel—three authors, who it happens, I cannot stand—and yet he manages to keep my interest despite the reliance on a literature I find tiresome. 

Perhaps this is in part because of the engaging nature of the worldbuilding, and the very natural means by which the exposition is accomplished. Mr. Beckett gives us a well-realized fantasy England in which season does not pile relentlessly on season but rather, days and nights of wildly varying length are dictated by the movements of heavenly spheres; where an erratic twelfth planet, forgotten to science, plummets out of the darkness bearing a malevolent cargo; where ancient wild wizardry is barely contained within the masonry walls surrounding stands of primeval forest.

He provides also a monarchy teetering on the verge of revolution, and the social world is particularly well-imagined, complete with a demimonde of disreputable illusionist troops, ancient families full of dark secrets, and the inevitable secret order of magicians (currently considered terribly unfashionable). I liked in particular the confusion of sides—neither the king’s men nor the revolutionaries have a lot of savor, and there is a great deal of confusion of motivations as the story progresses—no one ever quite knowing who is about to betray whom.

Very enjoyable, after the fashion of fantasies-of-manners such as Swordspoint and Sorcery and Cecelia, although perhaps hewing a little closer to the source material than either.

Elizabeth Bear is a sometime fantasy author who is entirely devoid of manners.


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