The setting of this fantasy-of-manners is reminiscent of England during the Regency era, but a world and a history different from our own, where various forms of magic have helped to shape that history—although only the formal “magick” performed by men of the upper classes is acceptable and respectable. The style of the prose has an early nineteenth century flavor, with delightful touches of Austenian irony.
Ivy Lockwell is the oldest of three sisters. Brought up in comfortable circumstances, they are slowly coming down in the world, due to the mental decline of their magician father. They are forced to rely on his small inherited income and they live in a house that belongs to their mother but which, due to an entail, will pass to a disagreeable male cousin on her death instead of to her own children. Yes—shades of Pride and Prejudice!— should either parent die before the girls marry, Ivy and her sisters could go from living in modest circumstances to genuine poverty. Indeed, since their mother is far from capable at handling money, it is only because of practical Ivy’s guiding influence and her insistence on economies that her mother is resistant to make that they have managed as well as they have.
There are mysteries surrounding Mr. Lockwell’s mental illness, and warnings that he left for Ivy in the form of riddles and puzzles. As Ivy gradually comes to understand, these involve dangers that imperil not only their country but their entire world. In addition, Ivy has always felt that she ought to be able to work magick, that it is only by magick that she can cure her father, since magick appears to have been the source of his illness—but unfortunately her efforts to do so have always failed, and she has no one to turn to for guidance because in their society women are not magicians.
Two other characters alternate with Ivy as protagonists and viewpoint characters.
One is the young nobleman, Dashton Rafferdy. Rafferdy is something of a social butterfly, witty and fashionable, but there is a certain dissatisfaction beneath his frivolous exterior. The problem is that he doesn’t know what would satisfy him or give his life meaning. At one point he thinks it might be Ivy, and she returns his affection, but they both know that anything more than friendship between them is impossible, because of the wide difference in their social stations. Meanwhile, the mysterious Mr. Bennick, an ex-magician, is trying to lure him into the study and practice of magick, for which Rafferdy has apparently inherited an aptitude from distant ancestors, but he is skeptical and resists.
The other main character is his friend Eldyn Garritt. Eldyn does have a goal. His family, too, has come down in the world, although from a higher status than the Lockwoods. His dissolute father disgraced the family, squandered his fortune, and then when he died left Eldyn with the responsibility of looking after and providing for a younger half-sister, with nothing to live on, a gentleman’s education (which is to say: no training for a lucrative profession), and a sense that he owes it to his sister to restore her to their original place in society. Desperate for money to invest in what looks like a promising venture that might solve all his problems, he is pressed to accept a loan from a man he already distrusts, and finds himself up to his ears in what increasingly looks like a plot against the king. And, oh yes, the company he invested his money in turns out to be a swindle.
When tragedy strikes the Lockwell family, and their financial situation is found to be even worse than she feared, Ivy takes a job with her father’s old friend, Mr. Quent, as governess to his two young wards. During her time on Mr. Quent’s secluded country estate—a period which encompasses several chapters—the plot takes a gothic turn, but it’s all preparation for what Ivy will face when she returns to the city and her path will cross that of Rafferdy and Garritt again. And (this is no spoiler, because the title gives it away) she also finds a new love.
One thing that I particularly liked was that the characters are true products of their society and the time period it is based on. Beckett doesn’t give in to the temptation to make them more sympathetic by giving them attitudes and values more in keeping with our own times. As a result, they sometimes suffer heartbreak because they hold true to the values of their society, but they don’t give in to self-pity because of it. They grieve for what might have been, but they move on with their lives to the best of their abilities. Some readers might find this frustrating—they may want the characters to do what they themselves would do in the same situation (as though they would ever find themselves under the same sort of pressures)—but for me these small daily acts of courage earned as much sympathy as greater acts of rebellion might, and are more plausible within the setting.
The book has flaws, as many other reviewers have pointed out. There are odd aspects of the worldbuilding which I felt ought to be explained, but never are—leaving me to wonder if the author had even worked out an answer. Some important characters are underdeveloped. I sometimes wondered how well Beckett actually knows the Regency period. It’s the author’s invented world, and it’s his prerogative to make what changes he will, but some things still grated, as I couldn’t decide whether they were deliberate or the result of careless research.
Since this is the first volume in a trilogy, quite a bit of time is spent setting up events that will not develop until later volumes, which makes for a somewhat slow start, and of course with two more volumes to follow not every plot line is neatly wound up by the last page. But once things start moving there is plenty of magic, politics, mystery, and romance, and an ending that was satisfying enough to tide me over until the next volume (which I was not slow in obtaining), while leaving me eager to find out where the story would take the characters next.