Review: Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis

Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis (The Harwood Spellbook #2)

Genre: Fantasy of Manners, Romance

Publisher: Five Fathoms Press on February 25, 2019

Source: Review copy courtesy of the author

Cassandra Harwood scandalized her nation when she became the first woman magician in Angland.

  

Angland’s first female magician, Cassandra Harwood, returns in THORNBOUND. And this time, she’s opening a magic school!

Traditional gender roles are alive and well in Angland, a magical riff on Regency era England. The only catch? Women, cool-headed and rational, govern the country while men, emotional beings that they are, handle the sensitive magical arts. This genderbent approach is both fun and clever, and Burgis dismantles those sexist assumptions through our heroine Cassandra Harwood.

Thanks to a healthy dose of hubris and some massively poor decision-making skills, Cassandra has the dubious honour of being both Andland’s first certified female magician…and the first to lose her powers. With the help of her husband Wrexham and her best friend and sister-in-law Amy, Cassandra has mostly recovered from the devastating loss of her powers and she’s ready for the next adventure: establishing Thornfell College of Magic, Angland’s first college dedicated to training women magicians.

Serious question for all the fantasy readers out there: is there anyone among us who doesn’t like magic school settings? While I have yet to meet one I don’t like, not all magic schools are created equal. From what we’ve seen so far, the Thornfell College of Magic may end up being a favourite. There are fascinating lessons about practical spell casting and magical history, eccentric staff members, and the requisite romantic drama brewing between the students. Of course, since the college is for women only, that means there’s some pretty solid on-page queer representation in THORNBOUND.

Thornfell’s countryside location provides the perfect avenue to introduce readers to the magical realms bordering Angland, since everyone knows that the creatures are closest to the magical borders in the country’s forested areas. Cassandra is desperate to see her radical new venture become a success, and she’s not about to let age-old grudges between humans and other magical creatures spoil her plans. But when a faerie altar appears in the school’s library at the most inopportune moment possible, it seems as though someone is sabotaging the school…and imperiling its students in the process.

As much as I enjoy the world and politics of Angland, it’s the stellar character development that elevates THORNBOUND to greatness. In the span of only two novellas, Burgis has crafted a very satisfying character arc of personal growth, acceptance of harsh realities, and hope for the future. Cassandra still mourns the loss of her magic, and rightfully so, but she’s also learned that empowering other women to harness their innate abilities is its own type of magic. Hell yeah! Inclusive feminist fantasy novels are where it’s at, people.

Cassandra has also become more comfortable with leaning on others for support, like her husband (largely absent from the story due to Suspicious Circumstances) and her best friend Amy, formerly a very influential member of the Boudiccate. Opening up to Amy about her fears while also becoming more mindful of Amy’s own struggles is tough for Cassandra, but she does it. And their already epic friendship becomes even stronger in the process.  It feels a bit strange to say that I’m proud of a fictional character, but I really am.

If you’re wary of short fiction because you think it’s, well, short on character development and world building, have no fear. THORNBOUND is a sequel that surpasses the already-impressive first novella on both counts. I, for one, cannot wait to see where Cassandra and the gang get up to next!

What are your thoughts on novellas and other short fiction? Do you ever feel absurdly proud of fictional characters and their personal growth? Let me know in the comments!

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