Uncommon Charm by Emily Bergslien & Kat Weaver
Neon Hemlock has carved out a niche for itself in the novella/novelette market, and continues to deliver quirky, engaging stories across the subgenres. This magical, alternate history romp, Uncommon Charm (2022), is one more example.
Julia Selwyn-Stirling is the daughter of Lady Aloysia, the premiere magician in 1925 Britain. Depending on who you talk to, Lady Aloysia, who Julia calls “Muv,” is either the powerful secret weapon of the British government, or the blackmailer of that same government. She is powerful and terrifying, but Julia remains steadfastly irreverent, even when young Simon Wolf, natural son of family friend Vladimir Koldunov (“Uncle Vee”) is sent to their house to learn from Muv. Magicless herself, Julia takes magic in stride but prefers to perfect her fencing and cypher-cracking skills.
If life had gone differently, Julia could have been Julia Koldunova, since Aloysia was engaged to Vlad’s older brother Nickolai at one time. Nickolai was murdered, it was a scandal, and Aloysia married, and then divorced, Julia’s father. But at first, it seems like the story in his short work is Simon’s, who cannot control his magic. His father equates control with power, but ironically the nation’s most powerful magician does not, and Aloysia tells Simon only to ask himself questions about his magic; how he feels when it happens, where does it happen, and so on. When Julia persuades him to use his magic to call up ghosts at the Koldunov mansion during a New Year’s Eve party, the two young people uncover family secrets better left hidden.
The gem of this novelette is the language. Julia’s observations are frothy and silly, expertly capturing the feel of the Bright Young People of the 1920s. She is unfazed by Simon’s accidental magic, as when he reverses everything in the drawing room, even the letters and numbers on the playing cards, or when he turns into a murmuration of starlings. Ruta, a secondary character and Simon’s mother, is sketched in a light but evocative manner, and Lady Aloysia is complicated and forbidding by contrast. Other characters, most notably Simon’s half-siblings, are less well-drawn; bored and boring children of aristocrats, they are interchangeable in the story.
For a 90-page story, Bergslien and Weaver try to pack in a lot of issues; the nature of magic, spirituality, anti-Semitism, socialism, revolution, sexual exploitation, privilege, and hypocrisy. This is a lot for a short work to handle. The writers chose to deal with sexual exploitation, a key plot point, with subtlety that crosses into coyness—and coyness is the wrong choice here, because it leaves the story with no stakes. On the flip side, the magic is wonderful.
I hope this outing is the two writers trying on their characters in preparation for longer works, or at least more works, because I’d love to read more about Julia, her mother and the magician Simon. In the meantime, if you like frothy, glittery fun, this is a delightful way to spend an hour or two.