Thomas Dunne Books, 24 October 2017
I'm grateful to the publisher for an advance e-copy of this book via NetGalley.
Moreno-Garcia's new novel is an engaging fantasy-romance with a hint of magic. It's set in Levrene, a country like... well, perhaps a bit like somewhere in central Europe, on a planet a bit like Earth, around the turn of the 20th century. While clearly an imaginary world, many of the place names, both local (Loisail, Montipouret, Luquennay) and remote (Port Anselm, Yehenn, Carivatoo), evoke that, as does the atmosphere of carriages, telegraphs and newly built railways.
Despite these stirrings of modernity it is still a ferociously traditional society, not to say patriarchal, with women's roles in particular fiercely constrained by the rules of etiquette and the fear of what Society will make of any scandal. A woman's only asset is, it seems, her reputation.
Against this background we follow the lives of Antonina (Nina) Beaulieu, a young woman from the country in the capital for her first Grand Season and Hector Auvray ("a castaway who had washed up on a room of velvet curtains and marble floors").
Nina would rather be at home collecting beetles and exploring the woods. She'd certainly prefer not to be under the dominion of her martinet Aunt Valérie. Valérie despises Nina and takes delight in being cruel to her: Nina, young and inexperienced, chaffed at the restrictions imposed on her and unknowingly torments Valérie with visions of what she has lost.
Hector is a performing magician - and here we meet the first feature that makes this book a little different. Hector can, in reality, perform magic - he can move objects by thought alone and has made a spectacular career of this. The place of magic in this book is well thought out - it's not high fantasy, we have no duelling mages here, and on the whole, "Talents" as they're called are accepted, if treated with a bit of suspicion. But there's no doubt Hector is an outsider to the carefully modulated social set who call themselves The Beautiful Ones.
This isn't only because of his abilities - Hector is of humble birth and that isn't forgotten, but he has amassed a fortune, and The Beautiful Ones do crave money for the upkeep of their ragged castles and their lavish lifestyles. ("Nothing matters more than money to us, the proper people who walk down these city streets in pristine gloves and silk-lined garments").
|Silvia Moreno-Garcia (picture by Martin Dee)|
I enjoyed the way that Moreno-Garcia makes Valérie both the voice, and the victim, of the stuffily rigidity society. It's a very character-driven, people-focussed story - beyond names and cultural trappings we don't learn a great deal about wider society, we don't see ordinary people at work or see anything of the politics (apart from learning, in a couple of throwaway lines, that there is a King). Yet by skewering that one one aspect - the position of women in the more privileged layer - we can I think infer the rest.
A very enjoyable read, with characters who felt real to me and about whom I found myself caring a great deal, and gripping to the very end.