Improper Magic: The Beautiful Ones by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

The Beautiful Ones is entirely different beast than Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s last book, the narco-vampire thriller Certain Dark Things. The Beautiful Ones is a historical romance set in a world inspired by the Belle Epoque, and is a story of longing, love and loss, and what betrayal can do to drive a person to becoming fully who they are.

Antonina (Nina) arrives in Loisail for her first Grand Season, where she is to debut as a young socialite with a fortune in search of a suitable husband. Unlike the other girls of Loisail, Nina has been brought up in the country and isn’t as interested in the societal proprieties of the city as she should be, according to her far more socially elevated and beautiful cousin-in-law, with whom she is staying. Valerie was once the belle of each ball, and made a fortunate match with Nina’s well-off and well-connected cousin, and though their marriage may lack affection, Valerie plays the game high society requires of a woman of her position exceptionally well.

Having given up a great deal to find a husband who could help raise her family’s socioeconomic stature, Valerie has very little patience with those who do not fall into place as required. She is brittle and cannot be anyone other than whom she had become to make her place in a society with very strict lines and dedicated pigeonholes for everyone, and though she may want “to weep for that proud girl who had broken her own heart and tossed it to the dogs, and she wanted to weep for the older woman who had been left behind with a gaping hole in her soul,” she knows that “if she could do it again… she’d still retrace her steps. She was not Antonia Beaulieu, who offered herself like a sacrificial lamb, who gave everything of herself to the world of the world to devour. She was Valerie Veries. She hated herself sometimes for it, but she was Valerie Veries.”

Nina is not just less concerned with all the things Valerie thinks a young girl should prioritise in her first Season—she is also telekinetic, something that isn’t unheard of in this world, but definitely not something a lady is expected to publicise or dare to flaunt in any way. Nina isn’t always in control of her powers, either, and has had some unfortunate events in the past when she’s lost control of them. She doesn’t know how to go about honing her skills, partly because it’s unheard of for a lady to even want to. She is, however, very interested in the telekinetic performer Hector Auvray, who, unbeknownst to her, has a secret shared history with Valerie.

Nina’s telekinetic powers are not at par with Hector’s in terms of control or panache, but she seems to have just as much power as he does, and she is eager and quick to learn how to use her abilities to perform the fantastic theatrical tricks that have been Hector’s livelihood, even though society considers women doing what men of the same abilities can do extremely vulgar. Hector, in return, does not think anything untoward about helping Nina learn more about how to use her telekinesis, and the two grow close, with Nina (and her family) assuming that Hector’s interest in her is more than just platonic. How their relationship plays out, and how it affects Valerie’s interest in Nina and her future, is what the narrative explores in an extremely readable, elegant period fantasy.

Admittedly, the fantasy elements in The Beautiful Ones are restricted to Hector and Nina’s telekinetic abilities, but the development of these in tandem to how the characters get to know each other are well played out as an aspect of their relationship. Hector is indeed the more experienced, albeit sober and controlled one. Nina, the younger, livelier one, “a half-formed being, a creature with no edges,” helps bring him a sense of adventure he hasn’t had for a long time, as he helps her gain control over her abilities.

The true strength of the novel of course lies in its characters and its depiction of an era when wealth and its correct show is all that matters. Valerie has made the brutal, unhappy choices she has made for money. Nina is wanted more for her inheritance than for her personality by some. Hector has pushed himself to be the famous performer he is so he could attain a certain economic stature and only now can choose to do what his heart wants instead of what society dictates. As Hector’s friend Etienne points out, “Nothing matters more than money to [this society], the proper people who walk down these city streets in pristine gloves and silk-lined garments. You can give yourself the luxury of love because you are not one of us. That is why you are my friend: because despite everything, at heart you remain an innocent.”

Whether Hector is an innocent or not is debatable. Many of Moreno-Garcia’s characters do terrible, despicable things to hurt each other and profit personally in this book, but that’s what keeps them and the narrative interesting. It’s a slow-burn, stately novel about the magic of what it means to love, and love truly.

The Beautiful Ones is available now from St. Martin’s Press.

Mahvesh loves dystopian fiction & appropriately lives in Karachi, Pakistan. She writes about stories & interviews writers the Tor.com podcast Midnight in Karachi when not wasting much too much time on Twitter.

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