by Stephanie Burgis
In nineteenth-century Angland, magic is reserved for gentlemen while ladies attend to the more practical business of politics. But Cassandra Harwood has never followed the rules…
Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.
Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.
But the greatest danger of all lies outside the manor in the falling snow, where a powerful and malevolent elf-lord lurks…and Cassandra lost all of her own magic four months ago.
To save herself, Cassandra will have to discover exactly what inner powers she still possesses – and risk everything to win a new kind of happiness.
I love a fantasy of manners story – Gail Carriger is one of my favourite authors and I enjoy Mary Robinette Kowal’s Glamourist Histories series and Marie Brennan’s Memoirs of Lady Trent series – and yet Stephanie Burgis is an author I hadn’t read until now.
Snowspelled has been on my TBR for a little while now and I’ve been saving it for the winter months. From the blurb it sounded like it had Persuasion vibes, which is possibly my favourite Austen (funny, really, considering I hated it the first time I read it), and I was in the mood for some fluffy Fantasy of Manners as the festive season approaches.
I’ll be honest, I was expecting more of a wintry feeling from this than what I got. While the book does take place during the winter, and there’s a lot of snow, the majority of this novella took place indoors and was much more focused on Cassandra’s character growth than anything else. While I would have loved to feel a little more wintry while reading this, I did really enjoy the story.
More than anything, I was so impressed with how much worldbuilding Burgis managed to pack into so short a story. This is an alternate history novella, in which Boudicca fought the Romans off Britain’s shores all those years ago, so society is more of a matriarchy. That doesn’t mean it’s perfect, however. Because society is a matriarchy, women are pushed towards politics and positions of power while men are pushed towards becoming magicians, so men who want to pursue politics, women like Cassandra who want to work magic, or her brother Jonathan who has no interest in either subject, are snubbed in much the same way as women who first longed for the vote in our own history.
Cassandra, who has spent her life pursuing magic and became the first woman admitted to study magic at the Great Library, has lived a miserable four months after losing her ability to use her magic and breaking off her engagement for fear of holding her magic-using fiance back. When she accidentally makes a promise to a powerful elf lord during a winter party, she is forced to team up with her ex-fiance, Wrexham, to put things right.
As I mentioned above Cassandra’s character growth was the most prominent part of this novella, and it was also one of its most satisfying elements. There’s very little I can say without spoiling anything, that’s one of the challenges with reviewing any novella, but what I will say is that I love that there’s no magic cure to all of Cassandra’s ills. Her journey isn’t a journey of finding a solution to all of her problems, but learning to live with the consequences of her actions and how to turn them to her advantage, how a failure for her can turn into a lesson and foundation for someone else.
I loved the relationship between Cassandra and Wrexham; again, for so short a story there’s a real sense of their history and chemistry packed into each of their scenes together. They so easily could have been competitors, and in a way they are, but their similar desires bring them closer rather than push them apart. They’ll never quite understand exactly how the other has experienced the world, but as Cassandra is a woman and Wrexham is from a lower class background they both understand having to fight to get their foot into the door of magic.
In fact all the character work in this story was great, especially certain characters Burgis so easily could have fallen into stereotypes to write and instead side-stepped those stereotypes wonderfully, and I enjoyed Burgis’s writing style an awful lot.
I believe there’ll be more of Cassandra in another novella coming next year, and I’m looking forward to getting my hands on it and plenty more of Burgis’s work! Her work isn’t as joyously silly as Carriger’s work is, but I think Burgis has the potential to become another favourite author.