Why I read it: I heard a lot of buzz from trusted blogger and Goodreads friends about this book by debut author KJ Charles, so I bought it. Of course.
What it’s about: (from Goodreads) A lord in danger. A magician in turmoil. A snowball in hell.
A Charm of Magpies, Book 1
Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.
Magician Stephen Day has good reason to hate Crane’s family. Unfortunately, it’s his job to deal with supernatural threats. Besides, the earl is unlike any aristocrat he’s ever met, with the tattoos, the attitude…and the way Crane seems determined to get him into bed. That’s definitely unusual.
Soon Stephen is falling hard for the worst possible man, at the worst possible time. But Crane’s dangerous appeal isn’t the only thing rendering Stephen powerless. Evil pervades the house, a web of plots is closing round Crane, and if Stephen can’t find a way through it—they’re both going to die.
What worked for me (and what didn’t): There were many things I liked about The Magpie Lord – I thought the concept was interesting and unique (at least to me), the build of dramatic tension toward the final denouement was great and the world building was deft. I didn’t feel bogged down by a lot of details but I understood what was going on and there was enough to give me a picture of a very different Victorian world than I’m used to reading about. There was only one place I was a little confused but that became clear very soon after so it was not a big deal.
I liked the clever use of words and the characterisations, swift and succinct, which gave me a clear picture of Crane, Stephen and Merrick (Crane’s manservant who is a major secondary character in the book but not part of the romance).
Crane looked at the naked hostility in the other man’s face and posture, and strolled to a conclusion, since it hardly required him to jump.
My highlighting function was getting a work out by page 8 in fact. Crane had the polished language of his class and the wit to make clever use of them. At the same time, he had enough of the “Shanghai Joe” in him (a legacy of his time in China) that he wasn’t boxed in by his societal position. He was prepared to make use of it but not be a slave to it.
“I am in the process of nailing Mr. Humphrey Griffin to the wall so thoroughly that future generations will mistake him for a tapestry,” said Crane.
Merrick’s blunter, less polished words showed me clearly who he was too and, at times, amused.
Merrick made a face. “Don’t ask me. I got no idea what he can do, and no idea what the job is anyway. The last time I knew this much fuck all, we was on a boat to China.”
I very much enjoyed the relationship between Crane and Merrick – devoted servant and master, trusted friend and confidante, loyal to and protective of one another. The bit of backstory we got about Merrick in a short conversation with Miss Bell was enough to round out his character nicely without taking up too much page space and without taking the reader away from the story at hand.
So, all of those things made the book a very enjoyable read. But what struck me the most was the discussion of power in the book. Lucient Vaudrey, Lord Crane is a very powerful man. This is true in a physical sense and in a social sense. He has wealth and a title. He is tall and well muscled and confident. Having been cast out by his father at the age of seventeen and sent to China with only his servant, Merrick, he learned, the hard way, how to survive. He’s made money of his own but he also now has the money associated with his heritage. Even though he is gay and sodomy in Victorian Britain (even magical Victorian Britain) was illegal, he had the power, position and wherewithal to escape if it came to an arrest, and to happily go back to China if required, so the risks of being homosexual don’t faze him all that much. But, he is powerless against the magic threat to him.
Stephen Day is, in many ways, powerless. He has limited physical or social power – he is poor, ill-dressed, short (only about five foot – that took me a bit of getting used to actually), his position as Justiciar which you’d think would give him some cachet in magic circles, in fact makes him a bit of a pariah (think internal affairs in a police procedural – it is common they are considered “rats”). Added to that, Stephen is homosexual and that in itself makes him somewhat of an outcast and puts him at risk as well. But, he is a powerful magical practitioner. Even though he has very good reason to detest Crane’s family, he nevertheless comes to Crane’s aid to try and rid him of a magical curse.
Because Stephen is a good man, he is able to see that Crane is one too and most especially – he is neither his father nor his brother (both now deceased). When Crane proves to be a man of his word, a man of justice, Stephen puts aside his ill feeling and helps when it is clear that the threat is not erased even though the curse is broken.
Crane is sexually dominant and Stephen is more submissive but even though he is smaller, he is not weak. He has magical powers which even up the equation and that, as well as Crane’s innate sense of right and wrong, protect him when he appears to be physically overpowered.
What I liked best is that in the end, in a romantic and a magical sense, when their various kinds of power are combined, they have the most success and happiness. To me, the whole book was a study in power – the uses of it, the different kinds of it – even the villain had a scarily understandable (if evil) understanding of power and their obligations to it and from it. Crane’s family history is about the misuse of power but before then, it was about a different kind of power altogether and rules and justice.
What else? I admit to some bemusement about the romantic pairing – it took me sometime to picture Stephen clearly and not as a dirty, prematurely-wizened little man. But as the story progressed, his sense of honour and justice and his backstory (which explained why he looked like a “starveling”) brought to mind a more sympathetic picture. There isn’t a lot of sex in the book but what there is was well done – it moved the plot forward and informed the reader as to the characters but more than that, it showed me the attraction between these two men which I had iniitally had some difficulty picturing. By the end, I thought they had begun an excellent partnership and I’m looking forward to what’s next in store when the second book in the series, A Case of Possession, comes out in late January 2014 (I confess I have a review copy of it so I get to read it a bit sooner than that. Lucky me.)
I read this soon after it was published and loved it. I found a free short story set in the same world and will be looking for more stories by this author. I loved the world and the inherent logics that drove choices and opportunities and barriers for Crane and Stephen. Everything is organic and makes sense – often plot subverts the social and cultural worlds of our genre stories for the author’s purposes. I really like it when an author shows us ‘what ifs’ arising from the realities of the world the characters inhabit. It is intelligent writing that gives us clever and versatile heroes and characters.
@Merrian: Yes to all that you said! 🙂
I’m so glad you liked it. It’s a wonderful book and I’m very much looking forward to the sequel next month. Great review :).
@Jenre: Yes, I’m looking forward to where Charles takes this couple next.
I just read this this weekend and really liked it. I also had trouble adjusting to Stephan’s height – too used to all those massive pnr heroes, I guess. You’re right about the study of power – excellent point. I really liked how well matched they ended up being. And the sexual tension *sigh* – it was really well done.
@cleo: I admit I think it would like it better if Stephen were a bit taller – even a few more inches – but just 5 foot tall took me some getting used to. (I am hopelessly shallow it seems!)
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