It was generally held knowledge among the people who lived on Withward Street that the eldest of the three Miss Lockwells had a peculiar habit of reading while walking.First of all, how great an opening is that? The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a fantasy of manners set in a secondary world by the name of Altania. It tells the story of three characters: Ivy Lockwell, the bookworm of the passage above, has an interest in magic but as a woman is barred from its practice. The Lockwells have been in difficult circumstances since Mr Lockwell became disabled in a mysterious incident, and as a result Ivy accepts a job working for the elusive Mr Quent. The other two point of view characters are Dashton Rafferdy, a young man from a higher social sphere who becomes close to the Lockwells, particularly Ivy; and Eldyn Garritt, an old friend of Rafferdy’s, who against his will becomes involved with dangerous men and must change his life for his sake as well as for the sake of his sister.
So often was she observed engaged in this activity that, while the practice was unusual – and therefore not altogether admirable – people had become accustomed to it. On almost any fine day she might be seen striding past the brick houses that stood along the streets as upright as magistrates, a volume in her band and her attention absorbed by the pages before her. No one bothered to wave or call out in greeting as she passed; they had learned long ago there was no point in it when she had a book with her.
A very long time ago, when I asked you all to help me review my backlog of books by asking me questions, Trisha and Heidenkind obliged with questions about The Magicians and Mrs. Quent (this should tell you something about how long an unfinished version of this post has been sitting on my drafts folder). Trisha asked, “I’ve been on a positive kick of homage-type books, so I am curious: Did you find the story a fitting homage/pastiche/etc or did the story just come off as unoriginal or stolen material?”
Before I answer the question, I should explain how the book is structured. The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is divided into three parts: the first, set in the city of Invarel, pays tribute to Pride and Prejudice in tone and plot. The second is told in epistolary format and has strong echoes of Jane Eyre, Rebecca, and The Turn of the Screw. Finally, part three brings all the plot strands together in a surprisingly Lovecraftian climax.
Galen Beckett (aka Mark Anthony1) has said that part of the reason why he wrote this book was to answer the question, “what if there was a fantastical cause underlying the social constraints and limited choices confronting a heroine in a novel by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë?” — which I think is a very interesting premise. He doesn’t handle it as well as Jo Walton does in Tooth and Claw, but then again not everybody can be Jo Walton.
To answer Trisha’s question, then, I don’t think The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is on the wrong side of the line dividing tribute from unoriginality, though some elements worked better than others. I quite enjoyed playing the I-know-how-this-story-goes game as I was reading. I suspect that rather than being lazy or easy, well done intertextuality and what I think of as skilled predictability actually take a lot of work. How do you make a story both familiar and new? This is one of the reasons why I love fairy tale retellings: I love stories that evoke other stories while still being their own thing; stories whose shape we can anticipate but don’t enjoy any less for that – quite the contrary. At its best, The Magicians of Mrs. Quent does exactly that, especially in part two. Strange though this might sound, knowing the shape of the story in front of me was part of what kept me turning the pages. I needed to know which bits I was right about and which bits were going to surprise me.
However, I’m not sure if the Lovecraftian turn of events in section three worked quite as well. I don’t want to give everything away, but when the Ashen were introduced into the story I couldn’t help but start singing Awake Ye Scary Great Old One in my head, and I kind of kept doing it all through the rest of the book. The thing is, I actually like the psychological reality this kind of story expresses – that’s why I’m a Lovecraft fan despite his somewhat preposterous writing. I like how well they capture the feeling of insignificance many people experience when facing the scope of the universe and the infinity of time. The Magicians and Mrs. Quent captures that well, but the Ashen were too much like creatures from the Dungeon Dimension minus the humour of Discworld. Something about the tone reminded me of a parody gone wrong, which I’m pretty sure is not what was supposed to happen. Perhaps the problem was the fact that the tone of the first two sections felt so at odds with this one, which prevented me from taking it seriously. However, I’m sure many other readers will feel differently.
Heidenkind asked, “I have The Magicians and Mrs. Quent on my TBR shelf, so I think you should review that. Question: it looks loooooong; does it read fast or not?”
You need to be patient in part one, as the build-up is slow. There’s a lot of jumping around between characters at first, and it takes a while for the seemingly unconnected plot strands to come together. But once the story picks up I was very much hooked, so I would say the initial investment is worth it. The first 150 pages or so are slow going, but the rest flies by.
As you can probably tell by now, I enjoyed The Magicians and Mrs. Quent for the most part; but if there was one thing that kept me from being completely satisfied, it was the fact that the characterisation was a little bit thin around the edges when it came to anyone but the three main characters. Eldyn’s sister Sashie was like Nora from A Doll’s House minus the ending. Her brother sees her, treats her, and portrays her to the reader as a doll. I kept waiting for the moment when we’d see her as a real human being, but sadly it never came. However, this is the first book in a series, so I should probably reserve judgement.
Ivy’s sisters Rose and Lily also seemed pretty one-dimensional to me. Rose in particular had me rolling my eyes with alarming frequency, as she comes across as a cartoonish mystic – ‘simple’ but attuned to Hidden Powers. But like I said, the characterisation is fine when it comes to the three protagonists, and that was enough to keep this character-oriented reader mostly happy.
I didn’t love The Magicians and Mrs. Quent as much as Memory, Shanra or Meghan did, even though I agree with them 99% of the time, but obviously that doesn’t mean others won’t. I did think it was a fun read and I want to know what happens next, so I’ll eventually be getting my hands on The House on Durrow Street.
They read it too: Stella Matutina, Libri Touches, Medieval Bookworm, The Book Smugglers (Thea), The Book Smugglers (Ana), Fyrefly’s Book Blog, Steph Su Reads, Jenny’s Books
1If anyone has any idea about the marketing reasons behind Anthony’s female pseudonym and the pretence that this is a debut novel, I would love to hear them.