3.5 stars really. I was expecting a full novel but this is either a novella or a short YA book. The set up is pretty intriguing. In 1850 London, magic exists and those who have the talent are highly sought after. So much so that if/when talent is reported the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts shows up to check things out. IF the report is false, the maker is punished. If it’s accurate, the talented person is taken from their family for training. Once educated as a member of the Society, you have to serve the kingdom and you can never marry. Your family is compensated, but how much depends on how much promise the individual in question has.
Charlotte Gunn is a middle class girl with a pretty stable life with her family and her fiancée, except that she also secretly makes money as an illustrator. Her brother Benjamin is sickly but undergoing university training to become an engineer. Charlotte and Ben have a secret: Charlotte is actually a talented, undiscovered magic user. The problem is that Ben is the one who gets reported. Together, Charlotte and Ben manage to trick the 3 examiners from the Royal Society, including the sinister Magus Ledbetter and the too handsome and charming Magus Hopkins that Ben is really talented, earning enough money for his leaving the family for training to cover the family debts. And debt there is because their father borrowed money from a nasty loan shark type whose clients tend to end up disappearing, and Charlotte finds out. She find out the loan agency has a connection to the Royal Society, and she decides she wants justice all the while trying to keep her abilities and her career a secret from her family and the Royal Society. It turns out the one Magus who figures her out has an agenda, and this is where the story ends. Hopefully only briefly.
Charlotte is in many ways the traditional plucky heroine of a Victorian story, but her situation and world are fairly unique. There are realistic moments that add humor, such as when she’s trying to sneak out of the collections agency, having broken in to snoop, and her skirt gets caught. Realism, suspense, and a little humor come from little moments like this. You can feel her frustration with the way the world treats her, as a young woman who is not supposed to work, or be smart or active. Even Ben has moments of talking down to her, and he’s the closest friend she seems to have.
I do wish we got a little more of the Magus group though. The only one there’s much characterization for is Hopkins to whom Charlotte is inevitably attracted much to her annoyance. This annoys me a bit as it seems oh so obvious what’s being set up: they will eventually fall for each other, Charlotte must leave her decent sounding fiancée or else he gets disposed of at some other point, they save the world from the evil, corrupt elements in the Royal Society, and live happily ever after. For once, it would be nice to see a heroine stand by the nice guy, and George is a nice quill-pushing geek. Magus Ledbetter is the probably evil one with whom Ben signs up, and Magus Ainsworth seems to be there as token female and to use a name traditionally used for magicians.
Either way, there’s a lot of good potential with the world and characters, but just not enough space for anything to really get going. A book of this length would have been better served as a complete story (and this is not- there are too many open ended possibilities) or be set in an already developed world (which this is not).