First – hooray, I was selected to be on a Cybils panel again this year! After two years of doing Round 1 Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, this year I’ll be doing the Cybils Round 1 Audiobooks – click through to see the other judges! This is the first year the Cybils have had an audiobook category, and I’m very excited be helping out with it! Start thinking of your favorite middle grade audiobooks published between October 16 2015 and October 15 2016 – nominations will open October 1!
Here are two very different takes on magic in Regency England. Both are published for adults, though in keeping with the period, neither has anything that would make it inappropriate for middle or high school students.
Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. ACE, 2015.
The story opens from the point of view of Zacharias Wythe, the youngest man ever to be Britain’s Sorcerer Royal. He’s also the first Black man in such a position – adopted, manumitted, and raised by Sir Stephen Wythe, the previous Sorcerer Royal, whose ghost still advises Zacharias. But while Sir Stephen and his wife were always supportive of Zacharias, the other sorcerers of England are largely horrified. Zacharias is trying to find out why the magic in England has been diminishing to a point where hardly any sorcerers can still work magic. This, naturally, is becoming a concern of national security.
Our other main character is Prunella, a young woman who is half British and half Indian and has been working in a home where young ladies of quality with unfortunate magical abilities – any magic being strictly forbidden to women – are taught to subdue them. Prunella herself thinks this is nonsense. Despite being orphaned, when Zacharias visits the school, she’s determined to follow him back to London to embark on a quest for a suitably rich husband.
Though both characters shock the society around them, they are delightfully contrasted – Zacharias a model of propriety and Prunella willing to break any societal rule that happens to get in her way. Their gradually developing friendship as they fend off threats from within and without the country, from the human world and Fairy, is a thing of beauty. The language and tone are pitch-perfect for the Regency setting, even as the adventures rollick along in a most unseemly manner.
Shades of Milk and Honey by Mary Robinette Kowal. Narrated by the author. Tor, 2010.
Where Sorcerer to the Crown has kingdom-level stakes, Kowal here keeps to a scope familiar to readers of Jane Austen. At 28, plain-faced and introverted Jane Ellsworth has resigned herself to being a spinster, despite her skills with music, painting, and weaving glamours. Her ten years younger sister Melody may lack the social graces, but has a face and figure that attracts multiple admirers. But who is sincere and who is just hoping for a hefty dowry? Verbal sparks fly between Jane and Mr. Vincent, the gruff but talented glamourist hired to create an elegant glamural in the nearby manor.
This is restrained and understated nearly to the end. Though glamourists can work themselves to exhaustion, glamour itself is used only as an art form here. The original PW review was quite unflattering about the pacing and the lack of obviousness about the romance– but I felt that the slow pacing and the understated nature of the romance was spot-on for the period. It will definitely appeal more to those who read for character and setting rather than plot. Kowal is a professional narrator and reads her story well, though her British accent sounded a bit odd to me in places – I couldn’t tell if it was not quite right or an unfamiliar regional accent. In any case, I went right on to the second book, though only the first was available on audio from Overdrive. So many historical fantasies have main characters who fight the constraints of society. While those characters are often delightful, I very much enjoyed proper Jane’s journey to find happiness.
If you’re looking for more, try these Regency fantasies:
- Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis (middle grade)
- Newt’s Emerald by Garth Nix (teen)
- A Natural History of Dragons: a Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan (adult)