New York: Random House, 2016 (404 pages).
Henrietta “Nettie” Howel works at the Brimthorn School for Girls as an instructor. When Master Agrippa, one of the great sorcerers of the Order comes to the school to investigate the fires by testing all the pupils, Nettie is terrified that he’ll detect her secret–she has the power to create fire. But a woman with power must be a witch, and witches and magicians are detested and anathematized by society for their involvement in releasing the 7 ancients (terrible beings of awful power for destruction) and their familiars onto the world. The witch Mary Willoughby and magician Howard Mickelmas are responsible for the greatest terror that the world has known. Nettie knows of their power first hand: her parents were lost as a result of the devastation, and her best friend Rook has dreadful scars over his chest from Korozoth, the Shadow and Fog. Rook is an “unclean,” but thanks to Nettie’s ministrations with a medicinal salve, he is able to function. Unfortunately, Nettie’s magical power comes out at the most inopportune moment–Korozoth wants Rook, and sends his familiars to take him up, so Nettie does the only thing she knows will release him and unleashes her fire upon them, sending them away. Agrippa has seen her, and she knows her life is probably over, but the master believes that Nettie is a sorceress, not a witch. The sorcerers are tasked with keeping the ancients at bay. Some, like Master Palehook, create wards like giant force fields to protect cities like London. Others pool their powers to add to the wards and battle against the ancients’ attacks. Nettie is moved to London to train with a cohort of sorcerers her age. Even better, Rook has been placed with her; he works as a groom, but at least she doesn’t need to worry about his care since he’s so close! On entering London, the group encounters a tricky magician who seems to know her face. But Agrippa warns the man off. Even though magicians received a pardon, they are never to be trusted, and the worst of the bunch, Mickelmas, is still out there somewhere. Then Nettie meets the sorcerers. While Julian Magnus, the handsome flirt, takes an immediate interest in Nettie, Lord George Blackwood (patron of the Brimthorn School for Girls) keeps his distance. Training begins with a test to see the strength of her powers, but Nettie has problems emptying herself as Master Agrippa suggests. Her powers are absurdly dampened by the mental exercise; in anger, she allows them to wash over her, and her body is consumed in a sheath of flame. All are awestruck by the sight, and Nettie is gratified to see that she is finally being taken seriously. She gets her sorceress’ stave, which stores her power, magically adapting itself to her with an ivy vine insignia along its length. Perhaps, like Agrippa hopes, Nettie is the sorceress from the prophecy that will end the terror of the Ancients! Lessons begin in earnest, but Nettie seems unteachable. The power she exhibited at her test seem to have dissolved. That is, until Nettie sees the grifting magician again, who calls himself Jenkins Hargrove. Not only is he somehow tied up in Lord Blackwood’s affairs, he seems to know more about Nettie than she’s comfortable with. He claims that she’s no sorceress, but a magician, and that he knew her father, also a magician. That is why she can’t work her magic. Sorcerers empty themselves to call the magic to them, but magicians fill themselves. Nettie is horrified at first, but the more she fails as a sorceress, the more that she wants to prove herself. Hargrove assists her to learn magic the way her body needs to learn it. She is soon able to assist the other sorcerers and go on rounds to set the wards that keep London protected from the ancients. Hiding her tutoring by Hargrove from Agrippa and the other sorcerers is taking a toll, but worse is to come: Rook is no longer taking medicine to stave off the pain from his scars. He’s embracing the shadows and finding immense power himself. Then Nettie is physically assaulted by her own peers! Master Palehook must be behind it. Even though he controls the wards over parts of the city, his brand of sorcery has always seemed at odds with the ideals of the others. And the pressure mounts. How will she get her commendation from the queen if she can’t perform, if she can’t tamp down her emotions? It doesn’t help that Magnus is a horrible tease, and only sees her as a petticoat worth rumpling. Nor does it help when she starts having dreams about the skinless man, R’hlem, one of the ancients. Then Blackwood reveals that Hargrove, who has seemingly disappeared, is none other than Mickelmas. Blackwood has been paying him off to keep a family secret–Blackwood’s father had a part to play in unleashing the ancients, too. Nettie is shocked. She has been learning her power from the worst and most dangerous magician in the world. She must prove that her allegiance is to the queen! She can’t give up her hopes to help her country. It is time for the commendation ball, where Nettie will receive the queen’s blessing. The demonstration of her powers goes extremely well, until Master Palehook reveals Nettie to be nothing more than a magician. And Hargrove/Mickelmas, dragged in from some recent torture, corroborates the evidence that Nettie is not only a magician, but is working against the crown and the sorcerers. Agrippa, instead of supporting her, admits to having been taken in by Nettie’s wiles. She is imprisoned and sentenced to death, but Magnus helps her to escape and takes her home to where the other sorcerers, her friends, are waiting. The joy is short-lived; Palehook has taken Rook, and the city wards are failing. Korzoroth and his minions are getting into the city. According to Mickelmas, Palehook will use Rook’s soul to fortify the city, just as he has been doing since Mickelmas helped the sorcerer find a means to use the unclean to set wards. But Palehook has developed a taste for the unclean. His power to create the wards is great, but Mickelmas reveals that he could be protecting the entire city. Instead, he has been siphoning off power for himself. With help from the boys, Nettie defeats Palehook, but Korzoroth is wreaking havoc, and is calling to Rook. Nettie knows that the only way she can save her friend is by defeating the ancient. But R’hlem, the skinless man, wants her to join him. Nettie somehow escapes from R’hlem and burns Korzoroth from the inside out. Rook is saved, but the darkness within him has grown. Nettie swears to help him, to free him, but she doesn’t know how. Thankfully, her defeat of Korzoroth earns her the queen’s commendation. Mickelmas has gifted her with his magician’s box, and Blackwood has invited her and Rook to his home to await orders from the queen. It certainly seems like a nice way to spend the calm before the next storm. This series continues with A Poison Dark and Drowning (to be released September 2017).
Tags: adventure, light romance, magic, magicians, strong female lead, suspense, witches