You know that joy you have when you first discover what it means to read for pleasure as a kid? That sense of losing yourself in another person’s imagination, of finding yourself so invested in their characters that you’re willing them on: that they become, if only for a brief moment, part of the fabric of your own mental world? This is precisely the joy I experienced reading The Mystic Marriage, the sequel to Heather Rose Jones’ first novel in The Alpennia series, Daughter of Mystery.
Jones has created a society in which the strange and the recognisable collide – the gentility and brutality of the nineteenth century twinned with its fantasy other. And in that space of historical otherness miracles really do happen, alchemy is ‘the great art’ and the supernatural is seamlessly woven into the politics and culture of Alpennian life. And – even more amazingly – those seams don’t show. It’s testament to Jones’ skills as a researcher that her stories leap out the page at you with such immediacy that you begin to forget Alpennia is a made up nation – an imaginary central European state with one foot in the political machinations of the countries which surround it.
But then again, you don’t just read fantasy books to marvel at the realism of their projected landscapes. You encounter them and engage with them through their characters. And this time, the author sets up an unlikely pairing: scandalous, flighty Jeanne – Vicomtesse de Cherdillac – and the austere, tragic figure of Antuniet Chazillen, desperate to clear her family’s name after the dishonour brought upon it by her brother. Emotionally worlds apart, the two women gradually come to a position of mutual understanding, respect and love. Their stories are closely bound to those of Barbara and Margarit, the main characters from Daughter of Mystery – and as the disparate strands of narrative are drawn together, the novel unfolds at a breathtaking pace with the jeopardy piled on right up to the final pages. It’s spellbinding writing, propelling the reader into an adventure which never ceases to excite and entertain. Highly recommended.
It’s quite hard to explain how much I loved this book. Let’s just say I’d already bought the sequel before finishing Daughter of Mystery simply because I knew I’d be paying another visit to Alpennia shortly.
The novel is an exquisitely crafted romance, deftly paced and with engaging characters, exciting enough to keep you turning the page, cerebral enough to get you thinking deeply about the culture and politics of the world – or rather the country – which Heather Rose Jones has created.
Set in an imaginary central European state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the narrative pivots around the actions of two young women brought together by the stipulations of an old aristocrat’s will. The rules of social hierarchy seem an insurmountable barrier to their love, and yet Margarit – an ingénue and burfro or bourgeois – finds herself struggling to understand the feelings she develops for her armin or private duellist. The novel also explores by proxy the way in which women of this period were denied anything approaching a meaningful education or intellectual fulfilment and stimulation, forced into culturally ordained roles which proved restrictive and demeaning.
The fantasy element of this novel is fascinating. The working of miracles and invocation of saints carry beyond the realm of the mystical in Alpennian society, having a tangible impact on the everyday lives, the politics and the traditions of the nation. Margarit’s abilities as a vidator, capable both of perceiving and working miracles brings risk as much as privilege. In pursuing her scholarly interests, she finds herself plunged into a world of deceit and intrigue which threatens to destroy her and those she loves.
The world building is superlative – I never felt that I was being spoon-fed when I read this novel. The author fleshes out sufficient space for the reader to make sense of Alpennia as both a reflection of 19th century Europe and its ‘other’ – a realm of fantasy in which our awareness of religion and history might be turned on its head. The prose style both challenged and entertained, and I found myself unable to stop turning the pages as the narrative reached its climax. Which means I’m going to have to give it another read to pick up on anything I might have missed. But first I’m off to read The Mystic Marriage – part two of the Alpennia series.