The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter
Graham “Gray” Marshall is a gifted magician, studying magic at Oxford’s Merlin College, when some of his classmates insist he come along on a midnight adventure. In no time, things go bad. Gray is blamed for the misadventure and sent away from Oxford to the Breton estate of his tutor, the small-minded, petty and envious Professor Appius Callender. Sophie Callender is the ignored middle daughter of the professor. Her father has told her, repeatedly, that she has no magical ability, but she thirsts for knowledge and reads magical texts in secret. There is a mystery about Sophie’s mother, who died when Sophie was eight, and the housekeeper, Mrs. Wallis, knows more than she is telling.
The Midnight Queen, by Sylvia Izzo Hunter, reads a little bit like an old Georgette Heyer Regency novel. There is social stratification, etiquette, and magic. The book sparkles with magic.
Sophie and Gray are kindred souls and soon they uncover darker currents than mere envy in the Professor’s heart. The incident at the college led to death of a fellow student. Gray discovers that the Professor is putting it about that Gray caused the death. A cryptic conversation Gray overheard at Oxford leads Sophie and Gray to the realization that they have uncovered a treasonous plot against the Master of Merlin College and the King of England himself. From the Professor’s Breton estate to the ballrooms of London, Gray, Sophie and their band of helpers race to save the King.
This book is good fun. The magical system is classical and the world is one in which the worship of the Greek and Roman gods (and some local ones) never died out. Gray’s friend Master Alciun lectures about the Jewish religion that believes in only one god, (a character opines that “he must be very busy,”) and an offshoot of that belief system that has a tripartite god. Wink-wink. People go to religious services to see and be seen, but those services are at the temple of Apollo or Ceres. Magic is a talent people are born with, but it must be trained and honed, and different people have different gifts. One of my favorites in this book is magica musicae, a gift of singing not unlike the power of the sirens.
Hunter uses… well, not stereotypes exactly, but conventional roles to people her debut novel. There is Gray, the uncertain wizard, a character we’ve seen often. There is the Snobby Sister and the Spunky Kid Sister, the Helpful Wizard, the Stern Housekeeper With Secrets. Within their assigned functions, though, each one of these roles is a fleshed-out, believable character.
The book relies a bit too much on coincidence, in particular one huge one, where Gray meets his society-matron sister just when he needs someone with her particular skill set. I also found the pacing a bit slow in the beginning, after a bang-up opening, but since this is, to some extent, a novel of manners, slow pacing, sharp conversation and etiquette as a weapon is to be expected.
There were a couple other small stumbles in this first outing, I thought. It’s clear that there is a mystery of some sort around the death of Sophie’s mother, but this gets lost in the focus on learning magic, despising the Professor, and rushing to save the Master of Merlin and the King. Hunter reveals the truth by having a trauma suddenly reactivate the traumatic memory of another character, but this happens at the climax when many other things are happening, and it feels tacked on. The Spunky Kid Sister, Joana, who always felt unloved by her dead mother, suddenly becomes mature, compassionate and understanding beyond her years at this point, which I didn’t find realistic or particularly necessary.
The development of the society appears to be similar to that of the British Regency period, but there is no Regency because Hunter extrapolated other changes besides religion. The tiny details; the welcoming cup ritual, the visits to temples, the changes in social events, are perfectly placed to help ground a well-created world. One of my favorite bits are various snobby priests, in particular the arrogant priests of Apollo, who see themselves as superior even to a king:
The King swayed on his feet for a just a moment, passing his hand over his eyes as though to expunge a nightmare vision. But immediately squaring his shoulders and straightening his back, he gravely thanked the priests, adding, “We shall not forget the service rendered by the chosen of Apollo Coelispex.”
The eldest priest smiled thinly. “See that Your Majesty does not.”
Hunter threads the needle here. The story wraps up nicely but there is plenty left for more books in this world. Gray’s sister Jenny, who is successfully married to an honorable man who loves her, is pregnant, but there is a secret sadness about her that could still be explored. Then there is the question of the way magic changes around Sophie and Gray when they are together. That’s very intriguing. I found The Midnight Queen to be an enjoyable read in an interesting world, and I look forward to more stories in this setting.
Noctis Magicae — (2014- ) In the hallowed halls of Oxford’s Merlin College, the most talented—and highest born—sons of the Kingdom of Britain are taught the intricacies of magickal theory. But what dazzles can also destroy, as Gray Marshall is about to discover… Gray’s deep talent for magick has won him a place at Merlin College. But when he accompanies four fellow students on a mysterious midnight errand that ends in disaster and death, he is sent away in disgrace—and without a trace of his power. He must spend the summer under the watchful eye of his domineering professor, Appius Callender, working in the gardens of Callender’s country estate and hoping to recover his abilities. And it is there, toiling away on a summer afternoon, that he meets the professor’s daughter. Even though she has no talent of her own, Sophie Callender longs to be educated in the lore of magick. Her father has kept her isolated at the estate and forbidden her interest; everyone knows that teaching arcane magickal theory to women is the height of impropriety. But against her father’s wishes, Sophie has studied his ancient volumes on the subject. And in the tall, stammering, yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who encourages her interest and awakens new ideas and feelings. Sophie and Gray’s meeting touches off a series of events that begins to unravel secrets about each of them. And after the king’s closest advisor pays the professor a closed-door visit, they begin to wonder if what Gray witnessed in Oxford might be even more sinister than it seemed. They are determined to find out, no matter the cost…
Sometimes I’m in the mood for this sort of thing. I’ll remember this when that mood next strikes.