Known for her diversity, the Portugal-born Sarah A. Hoyt has written dozens of short stories and several novels including the Shakespearean Fantasies series, the Musketeer Mystery books, and the Shifters urban fantasy series. She has also written a historical romance under the pseudonym Laurien Gardner, a collaborative novel with SF author Eric Flint, and co-edits the forthcoming anthology Something Magic This Way Comes (below).
In Ms. Hoyt’s Magical British Empire series, which kicks off with Heart of Light, the author introduces an alternate nineteenth century era where magic not only exists, but is an integral part of life. For instance, while the world may feature trains, air transportation, indoor lighting, guns, and other modern amenities, it is magic — not science or technology — that powers them. That’s why there are magelights instead of electricity, carpetships — yes, flying carpets — instead of airships, and powersticks instead of rifles. Still, for all of the differences there might be between Ms. Hoyt’s Victorian time period and the one in our history books, many things remain the same such as a powerful British Empire reigned over by Queen Victoria, Africans enslaved by white people — known as ‘Water People’ in this case — and proper English manners.
Where the author deviates the most is in how Europe became a global superpower. Forty generations earlier, Charlemagne stole a jewel from a statue that was meant to represent the “mother of all mankind”, and with it bound all of the magical power in Europe to himself and his descendants, thus allowing certain individuals to perform feats of ‘great magic.’ In contrast, in other nations like Africa, magic is distributed to everyone evenly, regardless of birth or rank, and so are only able to execute ‘small magic.’ Hence the reason for Europe’s dominance. Unfortunately for Europe, the power has become fractured over so many different bloodlines that numerous revolutions have erupted throughout the great nation, not to mention the threat of anarchists who seek an equalitarian society. In response to this situation, Queen Victoria has devised a plan to acquire the remaining jewel — called the Heart of Light — and use it to bind all of Europe’s magic to her bloodline, thus ensuring the British Empire’s supremacy.
Heart of Light starts off with a honeymoon trip to Cairo actually doubling as the queen’s secret mission to recover the Heart of Light. Unfortunately for the Oldhall newlyweds, Nigel is completely unsuited for the task — he was only chosen because of his connection to the compass stone and the disappearance of his older brother Carew — while Emily has no clue about the mission, which leads to a major misunderstanding between the couple that jeopardizes the operation and places both of their lives at great risk. Complicating matters even further are the Hyena Men — a secret African organization intent on capturing the jewel for themselves so they might finally become strong enough to ‘cast off the yoke of European oppression’ — Nigel’s old classmate and friend Peter Farewell who has his own secret agenda, a dangerous were-dragon, affairs of the heart including the realization that maybe Nigel and Emily weren’t meant for each other, and the terrible revelation that using the Heart of Light will destroy the very fabric of reality.
Part romantic adventure (Romancing the Stone), part alternate history, and part fantasy quest, Sarah A. Hoyt’s Heart of Light is a solid book that was fun and quick to read, but not entirely satisfying. What I liked about it was the backdrop, the magical concepts, the cultural clashes between British and Africans, the development of the characters, and the book’s easy accessibility. What I didn’t like so much was the predictability of the story’s romances and certain plot elements, how PG the novel was which attributed to the book’s lack of tension, an ending that was a common fantasy trope, and various inconsistencies like how Nigel suddenly transforms from an out-of-place foreigner into someone who can kill a lion with just a spear and Emily discovering her ‘soulmate.’
Another issue I had — though not really a problem — was the worldbuilding. As interesting as this version of the nineteenth century was, I just wish there had been more details. For instance, how did magic affect other nations or major historical events like the American Revolutionary War? Hopefully we’ll get to learn more about such things in the sequels, but I just thought the book’s historical aspects lacked the depth or imagination that I’ve seen in other historical fantasy novels. I’ve read other Victorian settings and even romances that were much better than what could be found in Sarah A. Hoyt’s Heart of Light, but I have to admit that I liked how the author blended together all of these different genres.
In short, I enjoyed Heart of Light enough that I’m interested to see what happens in the sequel Soul of Fire, but at the same time it’s a series that I can live without.