Thornbound: A Regency magic school for women

Thornbound by Stephanie Burgis science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThornbound by Stephanie Burgis science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThornbound by Stephanie Burgis

“For over seventeen hundred and fifty years, ever since the great Boudicca herself had sent the Romans fleeing Angland with the help of her second husband’s magery, a clearly defined line had been drawn in the public arena, never to be broken. The hard-headed ladies of Angland saw to the practicalities of rule whilst the more mystical and emotional gentlemen dealt with magic.” 

In this magical, alternative-history version of England, called Angland, traditional roles are genderbent: the women handle politics and rule the country, while men are the magicians. For many years Cassandra Harwood was the only female magician in Angland, a single exception to a fixed tradition that many in power regret having allowed. Cassandra is still kicking against the rules of society, even though she can no longer exercise her magical powers due to a deeply regretted choice in her past. But Cassandra recovered from her disappointment at her loss of magic and, following the maxim that “those who cannot do, teach,” she is now scandalizing society in a brand new way by setting up a College of Magic for young women at her ancestral home, Thornfell. Even if she’s teaching most of the classes herself and only has nine students, she feels strongly about giving magically-gifted young women the chance to exercise their talents.

But nothing’s ever simple for Cassandra: her newlywed husband, Rajaram Wrexham, was pulled away from her the morning of the day they were married five weeks ago by his job, handling magical crises all over the country for the women’s ruling council, the Boudiccate, and hasn’t been permitted to come home since. The Boudiccate has also sent a hostile delegation to inspect her new magical college, with the power to shut it down. And now someone is at Thornfell is tapping into sinister powers, leaving behind evidence of a dangerous blood bargain with a fey that could prove disastrous for everyone at Thornfell.

Thornbound (2019) is on the lighter side of Regency fantasy, but it has an amusing mystery plot (even if the villain isn’t too hard to suss out) and enjoyable characters. In fact, I liked this even better than the first book in this series, Snowspelled (having the second book in a series not be a letdown is always cause for cheering.) Along with Cassandra, Wrexham and a few other familiar characters from Snowspelled, we meet some appealing young women in the first class of female magicians ― it’s great to see them begin to learn how to use their magical powers ― and a half-fey housekeeper whom one had best not offend. Some characters develop unexpected new facets to their personalities. I liked the way Cassandra, a strong, fiercely independent woman, learns to rely on both family and friends around her to solve problems, rather than trying to handle everything herself.

The genderbent roles, which struck me as interesting but a bit gimmicky in Snowspelled, play out in some really interesting ways here. One of the politician women who is inspecting the Thornfell College of Magic tries to convince Cassandra to close her school by pointing out how, if women are allowed to practice magic, men will then start to demand the right to political roles … and that could eventually result in the men taking over the rule of Angland. It’s an entirely understandable fear! More amusing is this society’s solicitude for the reputation of unmarried gentlemen. Cassandra straight-facedly tells one man:

Given the circumstances, I’m sure no one will question your virtue if you choose to stay in Thornfell with the rest of us tonight. We’ll find you a room well away from any ladies, with a door that locks firmly from the inside.

While he appreciates others’ concerns, he bravely carries on (“With a married gentleman in residence, my reputation should be safe enough”).

Thornbound is a light, quick read, but Stephanie Burgis tucks a few significant social points into its plot along with the mystery and gender role humor. If you like light Regency fantasy, the HARWOOD SPELLBOOK series is worth checking out.

Published in February 2019. Cassandra Harwood scandalized her nation when she became the first woman magician in Angland. Now, she’s ready to teach a whole new generation of bright young women at her radical new school, the Thornfell College of Magic… Until a sinister fey altar is discovered in the school library, the ruling Boudiccate sends a delegation to shut down Thornfell, and Cassandra’s own husband is torn away from her. As malevolent vines slither in from the forest and ruthless politicians scheme against her, Cassandra must fight the greatest battle of her life to save her love, her school, and the future of the young women of Angland.

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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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