So I’d been hearing about this novel for years now, but I just couldn’t bring myself to dive in. I think that I’d just had the admittedly unsophisticated thought that there were simply too many stories about magic and magicians, many written in the shadow of the cultural juggernaut that is the Harry Potter series, and the notion of settling in for nearly a thousand pages of been-there, done-that just did not sound appealing at all.
But then, for whatever reason, as the holiday season approached this year, I began hankering for a good, fat, magical read—I’m really not certain why—and here was the perfect candidate. And let me say this plainly. All of my preconceived notions were wrong. This book is a big, big-hearted, terribly wonderful, old-school, Dickensian, swashbuckling tale, both literally and figuratively magical, but it’s also got this delightfully gothic and dark side as well.
It’s set primarily in England, as well as some portions in Spain, Portugal, and Italy, in the early years of the nineteenth century, during the Napoleonic Wars. Clarke does a remarkable job of creating this absorbing, in-depth, vastly sprawling character study that brilliantly mirrors real history to such an extent that the novel even feels like nonfiction, and, though it was written in 2004, it reads like a nineteenth century novel of manners. And it’s only her debut novel.
I won’t say anything more, apart from a hearty recommendation that you dive in and not be discouraged by the sheer heft of the thing. The joy and delight you will find therein, as well as the sweet, sad, and heartfelt ending, along with the dozens of delightful illustrations you’ll find scattered throughout, will more than make up for the work you’ll put in getting through the 846 pages.
In fact, part of the reason why this review is so brief, why I have so little to say here, is that, as I read it, I was so fully engrossed in the thing, and neglected to take notes or really think at all about the eventual review I would have to write. It was just plain, old-fashioned, curl-up-on-the-couch readerly delight…and what better compliment could I give a book?