I read and enjoyed the first book in this series, The Midnight Queen, which charts the fortunes of Sophie and Gray and if you haven’t yet read this first book, then I recommend you do so before plunging into this one.
BLURB: In her second year of studies at Merlin College, Oxford, Sophie Marshall is feeling alienated among fellow students who fail to welcome a woman to their ranks. So when her husband, Gray, is invited north as a visiting lecturer at the University in Din Edin, they leap at the chance. There, Sophie’s hunger for magickal knowledge can finally be nourished. But she must put her newly learned skills to the test sooner than expected. All is not well in the Kingdom of Alba, and before long the Marshalls find themselves beset by unexpected dangers.
And that’s as much of the very chatty blurb that I’m prepared to divulge – I read a stream of reviews complaining on how the pace dragged in the first half of the book, which I found rather surprising. Until I read the blurb after I finished the book and realised that it gave away a major plotpoint that occurs just over halfway through the book – which the author clearly intends to come as a nasty surprise to the reader. However, not if you started the book expecting it to crop up from the first page…
Hunter does a good job of depicting a world where Christianity didn’t gain ascendancy, so there are a variety of religions, including some of the Roman deities and a lot more, besides. Latin is the lingua franca and magic is part of the everyday, though not everyone has magical ability and as we are in an alternate Regency period, women don’t have much agency, though if they are particularly magically gifted they do have more opportunities.
Hunter is a beguiling author – when I’m in the middle of her tales, I find I’m swept along by the intensity of her writing and the nuanced characterisation. It wasn’t until I put this one down with a sad sigh and had cleared my head a little, I realised that the lassitude that afflicted two of the main characters did flatten the pace of the story at times – and I’m not sure how that could have been avoided.
I did thoroughly enjoy watching Joanne coming into her own and finding her feet, after all the hardship and emotional turbulence of the last couple of years. I do like the spiky relationship she has with her sister, and also the sense of loss she feels now that Sophie is no longer there. She is the character who comes to the fore and is by far the most successfully depicted in this book, I think. Not that any of the characters fail to convince – apart from her portrayal of a complex, conflicted world, Hunter’s strength is her characterisation.
While I don’t agree that the pace drags during the first half, I do think that the game-changing climactic scene in the grove near the end is a tad rushed. But I am definitely going to continue reading this enjoyable, engrossing series – it’s worth it for the worldbuilding alone… Recommended for fans of Brit-based fantasy with roots in our rich, historical past.