The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry by C.M. Waggoner
Dellaria Wells is an untrained fire witch, living hand-to-mouth in the slums of Leiscourt, trying to keep track of her drip-addicted mother. Behind on rent and threatened with a curse by her landlady, Delly plans to answer a mysterious advertisement recruiting various women to protect a Lady of Some Importance. When she is interviewed — through the bars of a cell, as it happens — Delly gives a succinct summation of her skills to the interviewer:
“… Why on earth would I be willing to interview a criminal for a position in my employer’s household, Miss Wells?”
“If I might beg your pardon, Magister,” Delly said, “I’m only a very petty criminal, but I’m a rare excellent fire witch, and we ain’t so very thickly strewn upon the local thoroughfares…”
Delly is hired along with several women as a protection detail for Miss Mayelle Wexin during the “period of seclusion” immediately before her wedding. Miss Wexin needs protection because there have already been attempts on her life. The group includes Mrs. Totham, a charming, elderly widow, who is a body scientist or necromancer, and Ermintrude, her shapeshifting daughter; Winn, an illusionist who is also trained in shooting and hand-to-hand fighting, and Abstentia Dok, a wizard. Once the party sets out, the first attack happens with shocking speed, and so does the second. When they reach the mansion of Miss Wexin’s fiancé, the mystery of the would-be killer is solved, but that person escapes, setting up the second, and longer, plot arc, as the group pursues the villain, seeking justice or vengeance — or, in the case of Delly, the reward money.
Along the way, the group acquires another member, a skeletal undead magical mouse with an eccentric way of communicating and a grumpy temper. Mrs. Totham names him Buttons.
Other reviews of The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry (2021) compare C.M. Waggoner’s world to Victorian London. I’m no expert, but the story felt more late-Regency than Victorian to me — I’ll split the difference and say “early Victorian.” The character of Winn mostly set the period for me. She’s a female version of the goodhearted “landed gentleman” who just wants a dram and a nice shooting party, eh, what? Whatever period this is — and Waggoner’s world is distinct, with different religions, different familial and marital customs all expertly laid out — the narrative voice is more than half the fun of this book. Delly, who uses a distinctive street cant, has the familiar gift of making up words, not only to try to make herself sound more high-society but also just as a way to describe things:
“… two contrivances that Winn and the Miss Wexins referred to as dogcarts, despite the fact that the carts were pulled by horses and entirely unendoginated.”
In rating this book, I ran into a categorization problem. Treating it primarily as an adventure/action story, I give it four stars, because I thought the story went slack for a while in the middle. The group ran errands necessary to their plan, and met up for cake and coffee to report out, but nothing that directly advanced the story. If, however, this is a fantasy romantic comedy, which it could be, then it deserves four and a half stars, because during this time we watch Delly and Winn grow closer, learn more about Winn, and see Delly struggle with her conscience, because she is attracted to Winn but also sees her as a “good prospect,” or, one might say, a mark.
The story ramps up and takes off in the final third, with the tracking of a villain who manufactures the deadly drug drip, and who is nearly invulnerable to conventional justice like law enforcement. Delly’s plan for bringing down their adversary is a dangerous one and danger comes home to roost in the final part of the book.
And — don’t forget Buttons. I loved Buttons.
Whether it’s the magic, the adventure or the crazy language, The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is just rollicking good fun.