The Twelfth Enchantment
David Liss

Category: Fantasy
Tags: , ,
Morality: C-
Writing: C-

I really wanted to like this book: it’s a Regency-era fantasy (Corsets! Advantageous matches! Industrialization! Magic!) with Romantic poets in it. Not only does it have Lord Byron (who seems to be especially beloved of SF authors everywhere for some reason), but it also has William Blake, who really is an even better SF fit than the famously dissolute nobleman-poet. But as much as I tried to like this book, I couldn’t help ending up seriously underwhelmed. The author is acclaimed as a thriller writer, but although I really can’t fault his prose style (he uses a great vocabulary!), as a fantasist, his work did not impress me.

Our heroine Lucy is on the brink of marriage to a boring (or worse) man, when she suddenly discovers that she has magical powers — and (of course) a special role to play in the Destiny of the Universe. Unfortunately, the magic in The Twelfth Enchantment bothered me on both an artistic and a moral level. For one thing, it is stated a couple of times in the book that magic in this world is entirely “natural”, yet considering that it’s being used to turn people immortal and exert mind control (among many other things), thinking of it as “natural” was a bit of a stretch for me – especially since, rather than being delineated at all, the magic was entirely of the “just feel it, just use your instincts” variety. Our heroine Lucy was apparently born with a phenomenal magical talent: everything she tries comes easily to her, because she just “knows” how to do it. Due to various other inconsistencies and credulity-stretching oddities in characters and relationships, I felt like this incoherence was derived simply from the author’s failure to define his book’s magic system in his own mind rather than from any intentional decision on his part. (There are a few references to things which were Meant To Happen, as well, but no hint regarding what the source of this special destiny might be.)

And then there’s the aforementioned mind control. Lucy, formerly a poor female with no prospects and reveling in her newly-developed control over her own destiny, resorts quite regularly to magically manipulating and controlling those around her. She occasionally feels a little bad about it, but not enough to stop doing it. (The author gives her an altruistic motivation for part of her questionable behavior — rescuing her kidnapped niece — but the whole situation ends up ridiculously contrived. The reasons for the kidnapping are extremely weak, plot-wise, and it’s obvious the author put it there purely in order to give Lucy an excuse to magically manipulate people without looking power-hungry. It didn’t work.) The line between good and evil magic in this book is more than a little fuzzy, and characters knowingly cross it so frequently as to make it rather irrelevant. Both Lucy and her several allies over the course of the story quite commonly do things which they freely admit involve dangerous, ill-advised, or downright evil magic, but they always shrug it off with an excuse about the extraordinary circumstances. No one feels any real compunction, and these forays into dark magic never have any negative results (even use of mind control doesn’t seem to damage relationships in any significant way), so not only is the use of magic defined within the story as “dark” essentially condoned, it’s not even viewed as significant.

Unfortunately, the quality of the book’s plot and character development in general matched the literary fuzziness of its magic. I thought the story got off to a fantastic start in the first chapter, which introduced mystery, magic, and mayhem to Lucy’s drab life in a way both dramatic and entertaining. However, I was disappointed. Not only did nothing in the rest of the story live up to the first chapter or two dramatically, but the dramatic events of the first chapter were also never satisfactorily explained. I never got the details to satisfy my curiosity about the mysterious events of Chapter One! Oh well. I keep looking for the perfect Regency SF novel, but I have yet to find it. At least there are plenty more Lord Byron SF novels out there…

Posted by Sasha | September 14, 2011

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