Look, I’m not going to finish my 20 Books of Summer list, but that doesn’t mean I can’t try to hit 15. The Magician’s Ward, by Patricia C Wrede, is the second in her Mairelon duology. This is a fantasy series about Kim, a teenage girl with innate magical abilities, who is being mentored by upper-crust wizard Mairelon. I haven’t read the first – somewhere or other, at some point, I vaguely recall hearing that this is much the best of the two. I think maybe there was a Sword and Laser episode about it? Anyway, I didn’t feel that the book suffered from me not knowing the characters at the start, except in one particular way that I’ll get to below – it feels like a spoiler so I’ll talk about the rest of the book first. Like so many fantasy series, it started with a sort of “previously on” section, and that caught me up sufficiently without being intrusive. It’s set in an alternate version of early 19th century London – the timeline is woolly but I’m reasonably sure it’s pre-Victorian. The main change is that magic is real, and wizards (every trained magician is a wizard irrespective of gender) are known to exist. Working class Kim has been passing herself off as a boy and working as a pickpocket to avoid getting pressganged into the brothels. However, she tries to rob a stage magician, Mairelon, only to find that he’s a real magician. At the start of The Magician’s Ward, she is – as the title implies – his ward, being doubly trained as a wizard and a society lady. She is not very happy about the latter.
The plot of the novel centres on Kim’s first Season in the ton, as she learns magic with Mairelon and is eventually convinced into having a coming out ball. There is something fishy afoot in London, though, and they get caught up in various magical shenanigans while investigating it. Why is someone trying to steal a book from Mairelon’s library? Where has spellmaker Ma Yanger gone? Will Kim ever learn to conjugate verbs in the way society deems appropriate? Etc etc. It’s populated with over-strict Mrs Lowe – Mairelon’s aunt, whose dual goals are to remind Kim of her station and to make her wear uncomfortable outfits – and Lady Wendall, her Mairelon’s mother, who is a fairly standard “woman in late middle age who is actually very cool and fun” type. Other characters include Kim’s various suitors and Mairelon’s assorted magical acquaintance, all of whom are fairly interchangeable. I enjoyed the way the magic system was done – although all the elements of the story were things I had encountered plenty in books of this type, there were elements to the magic system that I hadn’t seen before and that was interesting to read.
This is a fast-paced and silly book, which I think is what it’s trying to be. The language is all over the place (especially Kim’s extremely questionable “thieves’ cant”, which appears to be a version of early 19th century Cockney as imagined by a late 20th century American author), the setting is inconsistent, and the characters are types rather than people. The geography of London is… interesting. Confusingly, the author seems to be using mid-to-late century descriptions of London slums to describe places in the 1810s and 20s, before the huge population growth in the city led to conditions deteriorating. Also, St Giles is north of the Thames and Vauxhall is south, but the author kept writing about them as if they were next to each other. I know this book was pre-Google, but I recall maps existing even back in 1997. (Because by this point I was feeling petty, I overlaid an 1837 map onto a modern map of London using the British Library’s amazing “compare maps” feature, and am happy to confirm that neither place has moved in the intervening years). Lastly, Hampstead is treated as insalubrious, but it is and always has been posh. It went from being a wealthy spa village to a wealthy suburb of London. Hampstead is so posh that “Hampstead liberal” was the derogatory phrase people used to use before “champagne socialist” caught on. I am not someone who thinks you should only write what you know, but I do think you ought to know what you write.
So, the thing that felt weird without the context of the previous book? (Spoilers from here on). The novel contains a romance between Kim and her guardian, Mairelon. Now, it’s entirely possible that the first book set up some context for this that makes it less strange: perhaps he only stepped in to be her guardian at the last minute to prevent her getting arrested, following a long friendship between equals? But as it stands, he is presented primarily as a guardian for the first half of the book. Mairelon comes across as a grown man, certainly into his thirties if not forties, and Kim as a teenager about half his age. We’re never given ages, but the first half of the novel really presents it as a familial relationship – not quite father/daughter, but certainly uncle/niece – and there is certainly a substantial age gap, because that comes up once or twice. When the book – inevitably – concludes with a kiss and an engagement, it therefore feels pretty icky. It’s also unnecessary. Kim’s Big Heroic Action towards the end of the novel would, I think, be more original, and therefore more interesting, in the context of filial rather than romantic affection, and the only thing about it that would need to change would be the kiss.
I’m not opposed to reading a nonsense fantasy novel from time-to-time (ask me about my passion for Genevieve Cogman’s Invisible Library series), and this was a perfectly adequate example of the genre. I could have done without the romance, but I enjoyed reading the novel in general. I probably wouldn’t seek out more by Wrede and I don’t feel any particular desire to read the first installment of the series. Do I recommend it? Well, you probably already know if you’re someone who likes the occasional trashy fantasy novel. If you do, this might be up your street. A perfectly fine example of what it is.