Dellaria Wells has a problem. Well, a few problems. Okay, a lot of problems. Living in the bad end of Leiscourt, she’s a down on her luck fire witch with little schooling under her belt, and a lot of money problems. When she catches wind that one of the noble houses is looking for witches to protect a young lady before her marriage, Delly is all in. Unfortunately, that’s when the real problems start. A simple protection mission soon evolves into an adventure with necromancy, murder, revenge, becoming involved in and then dismantling the local drug trade, a little bit of love, a whole lot of swearing, and an undead mouse named Buttons.
It was a joy to return to the world of C. M. Waggoner, whose first novel Unnatural Magic, I absolutely loved. And though we’ve left behind the characters of the first novel for the most part, there are some delicious details here and there for astute readers. Where Waggoner’s first novel was a little more standard in terms of epic trappings (mythical beings, a robust magic system and those within it, imperial and royal characters), The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is very much concerned with those who live in the shadow of the powerful.
Delly is a character who glories in her crassness, who can’t stand nobility while simultaneously attempting to get into the good graces of anyone whose purse-strings could help her through the next week. While she does have power as a fire mage, even that sets her apart; other mages that she meets can only think of her as a “gutterwitch.” And while Delly manages to make her way into this bodyguard mission, most involved are like her: a young girl who lives life as a wereboar, her mother (a powerful but elderly necromancer), two bodyguards of traveling merchants, and a half-troll named Winn who’s just trying to find her own way out from under parent’s considerable fame and notoriety. And as the adventure grows darker and darker, Delly and her companions have to grow together and trust one another if they’re going to find not just a murderer but shut down a growing and dangerous drug trade within Leiscourt.
Delly Wells is the best kind of protagonist. Selfish, skittish, anxious and overwhelmed, smart, opportunistic, a good heart under all the bluster, and yes, ruthless. She shines in every situation she’s in, the definition of “fake it ‘til you make it,” who pretends so often to know what she’s doing, she eventually stumbles into doing it right anyway, even if it’s not in her best interest. Dell’s relationship with Winn is a highlight of this story, too. She grows from flirting with Winn just enough that she’ll want to “household” (an in-world term for something akin to engagement) Dell, to fighting her developing feelings for her, to embracing that she’s doomed to be head over heels for the silver-haired half-troll mage woman. It may be a bit of a well-trod road of “two very different people from opposite ends of society fall for each other,” but it is one of the best roads to walk, as Winn must get used to Delly’s rather novel approach to life and Delly does her best to get to Winn to loosen up. And the other characters—the fastidious Miss Dok, the pleasant and horrifying combo of elderly necromancer Mrs. Totham and her undead mouse Buttons, Mrs. Totham’s daughters, Delly’s drip-addicted mother, and any number of a dozen folk of Leiscourt— all of them and more make this world as rich and alive as can be.
Waggoner’s characters absolutely shine, and she writes with an ear for the cadence and rhythm of their voices, from the streetside lingo of Delly in all her alley-speech glory to the parlor room parlance upon which mysteries and thrillers are born—Agatha Christie in design and Pratchett-esque in execution, but all very much her own. At turns tongue-in-cheek, acerbic, sorrowful, romantic, and epic in the scope of what could happen if it all goes wrong, Waggoner never loses sight of what each scene needs in order to get the reader invested wholly in the story. No, the world won’t exactly end if our heroes don’t succeed, rather it is the lives of regular people at stake, and those are just as important as the systems by which the world run—probably more.
If I haven’t said much of the plot, please forgive me. It’s only that it careens and turns and pirouettes and jumps and dances far more than I can explain without spoilers—it is daring sequence of events that kept me enthralled and rooted to my seat for hours on end. A protection job turns into a murder mystery, turns into a revenge quest, turns into a courtship, turns into something like Breaking Bad by way of “let’s burn it down from the inside,” and ends up somewhere around the end of a Shakespearean comedy and tragedy combined.
It may seem like a lot to juggle, but Waggoner does it with ease, keeping you rapt the entire time. I truly hope she gets a chance to return to this world, because having seen her chops in Unnatural Magic and watching her not only try something new but excel at it in The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, I cannot wait to see what she turns her attention to next.
Martin Cahill is a writer living in Queens who works as the Marketing and Publicity Manager for Erewhon Books. He has fiction work forthcoming in 2021 at Serial Box, as well as Beneath Ceaseless Skies and Fireside Fiction. Martin has also written book reviews and essays for Book Riot, Strange Horizons, and the Barnes and Noble SF&F Blog. Follow him online at @mcflycahill90 and his new Substack newsletter, Weathervane, for thoughts on books, gaming, and other wonderfully nerdy whatnots.