Genre: Fantasy, Fantasy of Manners
Publisher: Ace on September 2, 2014
Gray’s deep talent for magick has won him a place at Merlin College. But when he accompanies four fellow students on a mysterious midnight errand that ends in disaster and death, he is sent away in disgrace—and without a trace of his power. He must spend the summer under the watchful eye of his domineering professor, Appius Callender, working in the gardens of Callender’s country estate and hoping to recover his abilities. And it is there, toiling away on a summer afternoon, that he meets the professor’s daughter.
Even though she has no talent of her own, Sophie Callender longs to be educated in the lore of magick. Her father has kept her isolated at the estate and forbidden her interest; everyone knows that teaching arcane magickal theory to women is the height of impropriety. But against her father’s wishes, Sophie has studied his ancient volumes on the subject. And in the tall, stammering, yet oddly charming Gray, she finally finds someone who encourages her interest and awakens new ideas and feelings.
Sophie and Gray’s meeting touches off a series of events that begins to unravel secrets about each of them…
Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s debut novel THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN is a clever and sophisticated historical fantasy with charming characters and a delightful alternate Regency setting. I would classify this as a fantasy of manners book, a fantasy novel that mimics the structure and tropes of a classic comedy of manners. Struggling with a hierarchical social structure, battling one’s enemies with wit and intrigue, and chaste romance are all hallmarks of the subgenre.
Graham ‘Gray’ Marshall is such a wonderful hero, particularly for the setting. He’s intelligent, he’s kind, he’s respectful, and he’s not deluded into thinking that women are less capable than men. In a historical setting like alternate Regency England, a man who’s not a misogynist is a bit of a shock, albeit a pleasant one. Personally I find it difficult to root for asshole heroes, but maybe I’m crazy! Anyway. Gray is an unusual romantic hero: shy and withdrawn, he struggles to articulate anything emotional when he’s in Sophie’s presence. But thankfully he can discuss magick with her, and the two of them build their friendship (and more) on a foundation of…well, magickal geekiness. It’s awesome.
While the world building in THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN isn’t particularly elaborate, Sylvia Izzo Hunter includes enough detail to keep the world of Merlin College and its magickal students fresh and original. I especially appreciated the inclusion of a symptom of spell casting called ‘magick shock,’ a horrible and debilitating exhaustion that comes of expending too much power in a short time. In my mind, any well thought out magical system or supernatural abilities should have at least one major drawback lest the characters become so powerful that it verges on the ridiculous.
One of the things that I like best about THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN is its feminist message and commitment to female empowerment. Yes, this novel is set in an alternate Regency England, a time when women – even those of high rank – had few options. And yes, Sylvia Izzo Hunter does take pains to convey that Sophie and Joanna are forced to act contrary to their desires because of male oppression (i.e. their father, Professor Callendar). But Hunter also incorporates moments of defiance, autonomy, and sheer gutsiness from Sophie and Joanna that really impressed me. And their “girl power” moments are supported by Gray ever step of the way!
Sophie desperately desires magickal knowledge and her heart’s desire is to become a scholar, but under the current rulership women in England cannot attend university and women are considered unfit for academia. Rather than take this lying down, Sophie skulks around after hours to scour famous magickal treatises so that she may learn more. Similarly, Sophie’s younger sister Joanna subverts expectations of female behaviour with her thirst for adventure and her refusal to kowtow to any authority figure. At one point her guardian calls her the most disobedient girl in the Kingdom, and she’s not far off! I have a soft spot for Joanna, in case you can’t tell.
Aside from the charming characters and the intriguing feminist elements, there’s also an intriguing plot in THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN. When Gray arrives at the estate where Sophie and Joanna live with their father, it quickly becomes clear to him that something strange and sinister is afoot. Professor Callendar is entirely too interested in what Gray may or may not have seen during the chaotic events at Merlin College; the Professor’s increasingly suspicious and erratic behaviour concerns Gray, Sophie, and Joanna alike. If they and their friends are to make it out in one piece, they’ll need to keep their wits – and their magickal talents – about them.
Court intrigue and magickal politics play an integral role in THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN, contributing to the world building and the suspense surrounding Sophie, Gray, and Joanna’s adventure. Although there’s tension and action throughout the novel, I wouldn’t call it fast paced by any stretch. Those seeking high-octane thrills should probably look elsewhere. But if you’ve ever wondered what a Jane Austen or Georgette Heyer novel would have looked like with magic, then THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN is the book for you!