The Magicians and Mrs. Quent
A fun idea gets a mediocre treatment in this fantasy-adventure-meets-19th-century-manners novel. The author sets his story — involving several central characters trying to stay one step ahead of the bad guys so that the bad guys can’t destroy the world — in a milieu which, he hopes, invokes the England of Austen and Bronte. Ivy, the eldest of three sisters, is determined to discover what has caused her father’s descent into madness — and she suspects magical involvement. As her findings turn more mysterious (and more sinister), she discovers secret societies, magical artifacts, and much more. And will her flirtations with the charmingly rich Mr. Rafferdy end in a proposal, or will she be drawn into marriage with the brooding Mr. Quent?
I wanted to like this novel, and indeed I did enjoy elements of it. Tribute to both Austen and Bronte is incorporated delightfully — plenty of plot and character motifs and even certain phrases from their books jumped out at me — while never drifting into purely derivative territory. However, I think Beckett erred in trying to source both Austen and Bronte in his story; the two authors are miles apart in both content and tone, and Beckett’s attempt to imitate both of them in the same work creates a jarring lack of consistency. The first and third portions of the book are told in the third person, alternating amongst three point-of-view characters, and focusing on an Austen-like milieu with dinner parties, matchmaking, and caricatured minor characters. The middle portion, however, switches to first person in an attempt to draw upon Bronte’s Jane Eyre. This portion feels out of place in its wildly different feel — Bronte’s gothic sensibilities simply do not mix with Austen’s comedies of manners. Though the writing style itself was quite tolerable, I found this lack of cohesion to be a major obstacle even to following the plot, much less enjoying the story. (I’m not sure what put it into the author’s mind that Austen and Bronte are similar to begin with!)
The discontinuity that characterizes the plot is also in evidence in the development of the characters, particularly the female ones, and their personal relationships. In spite of the androgynous name, I would stake my bet on the author’s being male…portraying relationships, particularly those involving females, is definitely not his strong suit. Ivy both bestows and transfers her affections over the course of the novel, and I found neither attachment in the least bit convincing or even comprehensible; in both instances, I was left asking myself why she liked him in the first place. Even the non-romantic relationships seemed contrived.
This inconsistency also spills over into the portrayal of magic in the story, which is similarly muddled in feel. Is magic good, or bad (i.e. occultic), or neutral? (For that matter, are there different types or classes of magic, or just one?) Is the characters’ dabbling in it to be considered admirably audacious, or risky and foolhardy? Some of these questions will doubtless be answered in the sequel(s), but there were too many apparent inconsistencies in the portrayal here for me to be convinced that the author has the answers to all these questions entirely straight in his own mind. Considering the fuzziness in the development of the plot and characters, I have a feeling that the muddled portrayal of magic is less due to moral relativism and more to lack of authorial expertise.
Really, the book wasn’t entirely bad. It caught and kept my interest (though the ‘Jane Eyre’ section did drag; I think the author should have stuck with Austen), and had many enjoyable attributes. Overall, though, I doubt that I’ll be picking up the sequel.
Content warning: The most likable and well-developed of the main characters is, it is strongly implied, going to ‘discover’ his homosexual orientation at some point in the series. There are several scenes that, while certainly not explicitly sexual, are awkward because of homoerotic overtones.