No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, December 06, 2016

2016/64-66: A Charm of Magpies (trilogy) -- KJ Charles

"There’s power in the Magpie Lord’s bloodline. It’s in the blood, bone and birdspit, as they say, and yes, birdspit is a euphemism." [loc 2160]

Lucien, Lord Crane, returns to England after two decades' exile in China. He is accompanied by his manservant Merrick (whose past is as lurid as his lordship's) and harbours a strong distaste for the dull weather and repressive laws of the land of his birth. His father and brother, whom he does not mourn -- they were responsible for his exile -- both committed suicide: and Crane finds himself overtaken by fits of inexplicable despair in which he attempts the same act.

Enter Stephen Day, justiciar: 'a kind of magical policeman'. Stephen, in the first book, is recovering from a magical draining, and blames Crane's family for the destruction of his own: the late Lord Crane destroyed Stephen's father's law practice and drove his mother to an early grave. Nevertheless, he agrees to track down the source of the curse that's been placed on Crane and on his ancestral home.

And then Day discovers that Crane is the descendant of one of the most powerful magicians ever to have lived: and that the power of that bloodline, inaccessible to Crane himself, may be accessed by others ...

The Magpie Lord is a well-plotted fantasy novel, a magical whodunnit, with an appealing and credible romance between two dangerous and strong-willed men. The setting is nineteenth century, though there's little to narrow down the period: no mention of king or queen or current affairs. I'm tempted to say Victorian, but it may be earlier. Social class is an issue, both in mundane terms and in the elitism of some of the magical practitioners: Crane and Day are both very aware of the damage their relationship might do to their social standing.

A Case of Possession deals with an infestation of Rodents of Unusual Size (yes, there's a Sumatran connection) and is, unlike the first novel, set primarily in London. Charles is to be commended for writing about the Limehouse Chinese community without resorting to period-typical racism or xenophobia: the cast of this novel, somewhat expanded from the last, also includes a Jewish couple (both magical practitioners), and a number of people from all walks of life. Crane and Day's relationship is more settled in this novel, and there's more of Merrick, whose rough (and irreverent) friendship with his nominal lord and master is a delight.

Flight of Magpies shows the strain setting into the core relationship -- Crane would love to return to Shanghai, while Stephen's overdeveloped sense of responsibility makes him unable to quit his job as one of London's few justiciars -- and introduces more new characters, including a levitating thief with something of a conscience, and a love interest for the redoubtable Merrick. The magic really gets going in this one, with spectacular results.

This series is definitely a light read, but it's effervescent with wit and well-observed characterisation. The relationship between Stephen Day and Lucien Crane is complex, adult and constantly evolving: the 'magical crime' plots are intricate and interesting in their own rights. Charles writes nineteenth-century London with competence, liveliness and accurate geography, and her characters (or most of them) have depth and history, whether or not we get to see any of it. (I'd love to read more about Esther Gold's past. Or Leo Hart's future.) And her protagonists are competent, dangerous and equal: that last is a quality I rate very highly in M/M romance.

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