To be honest, it took me three readings (not in a row) to finally get into The Magicians and Mrs. Quent. It’s not that it’s a terrible book. It’s a good, pleasant read. But it has some missing pieces that, had they been filled in, would have made the novel more enjoyable as a whole.
First, I actually liked the way the story lines of Ivy, Raffredy, and Garrett intersected though it made it a bit of a stretch to keep track of at times. Along those lines though, the novel unfolds slowly, which may or may not be a bad thing. It’s not bad if it forces you to pay attention and holds your interest, but the pace works against the story in that it takes too long to delve into the plot.
The characters’ static development is the second missing piece. The main characters, male and female alike, possess little to no flaws, so the good guys and gals remain good (and never really have to make hard moral decisions) and the bad guys are bad without any real justification for their behavior. Ivy herself had the potential to make a great leading lady and, to be fair, she’s smart, resourceful, isn’t a man-hater, and reacts bravely in the face of danger. But that’s about it. She behaves as expected as the novel’s perfect heroine so nothing Ivy did (or didn’t so) came as a surprise.
Since this is a fantasy novel, it’s only fair to discuss its world-building which, for the most part, is fairly solid (albeit the function and purpose of the umbrals and luminals possessed no logical, scientific possibility or pattern nor do they possess any overt functionality despite their constant occurrence and reference). Altania is derived from some variant of Regency/Victorian London only with magicians running afoot. Probably the biggest issue regarding the magic in the book is why men can work magic and women can’t. It isn’t a sense of innate ability nor a legally enforced matter. Instead, it seems to be a social assumption. Personally, I would have liked some sort of exposition, however small, as to why Altanian society viewed magic as taboo for women. Doing so would have made some characters’ actions more compelling.
Likewise, the magic itself is a bit low-key, so there is no wand-waving, spell-casting, or potion-making. But that’s not necessarily a negative either since this novel is driven more by its layers of suspense than establishing a rich magical world. But it does bring up the third missing element. We’re given no history regarding the Vigilant Order, which is set up as the chief antagonist though they only overtly appear in the novel’s climactic scene. Where did they come from? Who do they like to recruit? What was their mission? These questions didn’t have to be addressed in full but some sort of background would have been helpful in seeing the Vigil as a genuine menace.
There is also an ancient mystery surrounding the foreboding Wyrdwood that’s built up in the middle of the story yet seemingly dropped in the last half. To be fair, The Magicians and Mrs. Quentis the first book in a series, so it’s possible all of these issues are addressed and developed later on. But since this novel serves as the opening act, I think more background details, at least in terms of setting up basic histories, were needed. As a whole, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent had much to offer but perhaps bites off a little more than it can chew. These flaws show themselves through plot slackening and multiple character threads that, while they do ultimately lead somewhere, don’t present much in terms of deeper character or world development.
From a writing standpoint, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is eloquently composed. Beckett does an excellent job staying true to the story’s fabricated time period and place, so you don’t have characters seemingly plucked from a Regency novel using contemporary slang or referencing modern pop culture artifacts. Though my one issue is the mid-section breakdown: for the first sixteen chapters or so, the story is told in third person. Yet in the middle of the novel, it’s related by Ivy in first person. While these portions were interesting and brought in a compelling magical element, I didn’t feel they were completely connected to the novel as a whole. In fact, Ivy’s section (which I liked the most) could have worked as a stand alone story, especially since the last portion of the novel picks up as if nothing had really happened (other than one character’s marriage, which, since the title is a bit of a spoiler, probably won’t come as a surprise).
Lastly, it’s important to note that for readers who have engaged a great deal of different types of fiction and genres, the novel’s inspirations will be almost painfully obvious. The Magicians and Mrs. Quent makes it no secret that it draws upon the flavor of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte’s works. But maybe a little too much. Throughout the novel, I easily picked up elements from not only Austen’s and Bronte’s sundry works (Jane Eyre in particular) but also Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, Charles Dickens’ works, The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, and general Gothic elements. This isn’t to say Beckett stole anything, and using genre conventions from Regency and Gothic fiction is fine. But perhaps the literary inspirations influenced the novel too much though not to the extent that The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is a rip-off. Instead, it’s more like looking at a color-by-number painting and glimpsing the numbers beneath the colors: the novel presents an engaging story but the mechanics needed to be better concealed.
Concerning content, language is nearly non-existent (if there were any profanities, they were so infrequent that they were easy to overlook). Regarding violence, while there are some tense moments where characters are threatened or in danger, there are no graphic, gory deaths or scenes of abuse or torture. Lastly, there is no sexual content. One male character is jeered by prostitutes on the street but doesn’t banter with them. Rape is vaguely implied as the assumed fate of a character told in flashback, but since nothing is ever explained or confirmed, that idea is left up to the reader’s interpretation. (As a side note, some readers suspect Garrett is homosexual though, other than a scene where he cross-dresses in order to disguise himself, nothing stood out as very apparent to me regarding his sexual orientation.) Overall, I sense this novel will best be suited for older teens (16+) and adults.
Overall, The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is good but not great and borrows too heavily from its sources of inspiration at times. Likewise, its pacing can drag and some of the magical elements seem to be forgotten about (at least as far as this first novel is concerned). The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is worth picking up if you’re a die-hard fantasy fan or if you enjoy quasi-alternative history. But regardless where you fall within the spectrum, it takes a very patient reader to stick with it.