Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis
Snowspelled (2017), the first book in the new HARWOOD SPELLBOOK fantasy series by Stephanie Burgis, is a fun, light read, right at the intersection of magical fantasy and Regency romance, with a twist of alternative history. We are in Angland, not England, and there’s a time-honored treaty between humans and elves, with the humans paying a toll to live on elven lands. Cassandra Harwood, her brother Jonathan, and sister-in-law Amy travel to a week-long house party at Cosgrove Manor, deep in elven lands, an area guarded by trolls who allow you to pass only if you have paid the necessary tax and have an official, glowing stamp on your carriage.
Cassandra is a brilliant, dedicated magician. Though still held back by the gentleman’s network of male magicians, she has become the first officially recognized woman magician in the country. Or at least she was, until a powerful magical spell she tried to cast four months ago went badly awry. Now casting even the simplest spell would kill her.
To avoid hampering her former fiancé Wrexham, another superb magician, in his career, she cut him loose two months ago … but he seems to be reluctant to disappear from her life. Which might in fact be a good thing, given that Cassandra has inadvertently run afoul of a malicious elf lord while at the Cosgrove house party, where an unnatural snowstorm has trapped the entire group and upset the local troll population. Now Cassandra has one week to figure out which magician at the party has meddled with the weather and caused the unnaturally strong snowstorm, or she’ll be in the elf lord’s power. Can she do it without her magic?
Snowspelled will appeal to readers who like light Regency-inspired fantasies like Sorcery & Cecelia (The Enchanted Chocolate Pot). This one’s got a little more adult content (read: a non-explicit bedroom scene) and some amusing twists on traditional Regency society rules. Almost invariably, the magicians are gentleman, while the ladies control politics. After dinner, the women all go off to discuss politics while the men remain at the table until they are notified that the ladies are ready for the men to join them. These gender-based roles are traditional rather than innate, though, and Cassandra and others are trying to soften their rigidity:
Not every man could do spellwork, of course, even in our elite cohort, just as I couldn’t possibly have been the first woman to be born with that natural ability. I was only the first to be bold enough, brash enough and ― most of all ―lucky enough, in our modern era, to finally break free of the roles we’d all been assigned centuries earlier, and win a public space for myself that others might follow.
Another interesting twist in this alternative Regency England is that race and sexuality are non-issues: Rajaram Wrexham is part Maratha (this world’s India); Cassandra’s sister-in-law Amy has dark brown skin, but it’s the fact that she’s married to a non-magician, Cassandra’s brother Jonathan, that holds Amy back politically, not the color of her skin. Cassandra helps a lesbian couple with some magical questions without blinking an eye. There are other strict societal rules, however, that take the place of these, and some traditional ideas (like being compromised and obligated to marry if a couple is caught in the act of kissing) remain the same.
The characters in Snowspelled aren’t particularly multifaceted, and the plot is light rather than deep or complex. For readers of historical romances, the relationship between Cassandra and Wrexham follows a timeworn path, and the hindrances to the romance are an overfamiliar mix of the self-sacrifice trope and the misunderstanding trope, resolved with eyebrow-raising speed once the couple finally gets around to really communicating. But their yearning looks across the room do allow for some amusing commentary by observers:
“We should sell tickets,” my brother told me. “It’s like watching an opera, but far better because there’s so much less tuneless shrieking involved. No, it’s all wordless emoting and high drama with you two and ― ow!”
Snowspelled is a pleasant and quick read, and Cassandra has some intriguing plans for the future at the end of this story. I’m interested to see where THE HARWOOD SPELLBOOK series goes next.
I’ve enjoyed her other historical-magical novels very much, and this sounds like good fun. Thanks for introducing it to me!
I swallowed Snowspelled whole in one evening; I’d recommend it when you’re in the mood for this type of quasi-historical romantic fantasy. :) I noticed you had read some of her other books. This one is the first of hers that I’ve read, but I’d like to check out her other fantasies.