I pick up books primarily based on premise. Even my favorite authors have to catch my attention with the premise and if a beloved author wanders into territory that doesn’t excite me I may never pick up the books in question.
Luckily, my premise hooks are broad. I like angels and goddesses. I like Regencies and other interesting, non-contemporary settings. I like women with powerful magic. I like dark romances. I like stories about fighting destiny and I even like a bit of Arthuriana. And when This Crumbling Pageant was pitched to me, I knew that I had to read it.
It’s set in a shadow world that lies alongside the historical Regency-era England we know. The shadow world—Magi England– seems to be made up of bubbles of magical geography that rest on the foundation of Ordinary England, and likewise, the culture of Magi England and the story rest upon the foundations of a mundane world— although most of the time the foundations are so deeply buried you don’t notice them and the book might as well be in an entirely different world. But, as foundations do, the foundations matter.
In Magi England, the indigenous people are called the Earthborn, and their invaders and conquerors are the Fireborn. They worship Greco-Roman gods and take their names from Greco-Roman culture. The ancestor of the current Fury family is credited with creating Magi England as it now exists: enthroning its King, suggesting its laws and warding its ways. Once the Magi were safe from Ordinary England, the Fury family took up a retired life: focusing on elegancies and their enchanting music. At least until Our Story Begins, when a King is dying without a blood heir, and their eldest daughter marries the Duke Regent.
The story isn’t about her. This Crumbling Pageant is about her little sister, youngest daughter of the Fury family: born to dark rumors and uncomfortable, strange magic.
(One of my favorite parts of this book: This is a fantasy novel, right? Sort of pitched as an upper YA thing? You’d think the young lady’s dark birth and strange magic would make her family draw away. What’s a YA novel without a heroine estranged from her family, right? But Persephone’s family absolutely cherishes her despite her problems. She has a sister and three brothers (including a twin she supposedly stole the magic from) and she has a warm individual relationship with each of them. Even her parents, who supposedly travel abroad for years at a time, are _her parents_. The author doesn’t spend a ton of time detailing this but the warmth of her family ties infuses every scene with them and I love it.)
We meet Persephone Fury at age 13 as she goes on an adventure and is first introduced to her destiny. After introducing all of the major characters, we’re whisked forward a few years, to the point where Persephone is preparing for her social debut while drinking a tisane to suppress her magic, and the story really gets started.
While powerful and more educated than most of her peers, Persephone also carries the full weight of her entire culture’s flaws. She’s both sheltered and privileged: gossip and her strange magic are pretty much the worst she’s had to deal with by the time she’s seventeen, and she has never been given any reason to question anything about her world. She’s in love with a man who only wants to shelter and protect her, and if she had her way, she’d be happy with him for the rest of her life.
Unfortunately for her, the antagonist has other plans. She has both the power and skills he needs. She’s hated him her whole life, but he’s not exactly a stranger to hardship. Worse, he’s a master of the same strange magic she can only control through drugs and he has other secrets she craves. And sadly for both of them, they’re the chosen chew toys of a goddess with an agenda of her own.
For the reader, this isn’t as bad as it is for the poor characters: Vespasian Jones is as expertly drawn as Persephone Fury. He’s very much the protagonist of his own story; he is _interesting_ on the page in ways that I’m sure surprise some readers— and there’s a lot in-between the lines of his sections. I was not disappointed by the final convergence of their arcs (and I’d love to talk about them more with anybody who finishes the book!)
The story moves fast, with layers of hinted secrets, foreshadowing, setting development, character development and plot. Very little is laid out easily for us: some things referred to in the first third of the book aren’t fully explained until near the end and other things introduced halfway through are still unexplained at the end (because this is a trilogy). It doesn’t, claims a Barnes & Noble review, end on a cliffhanger, which I suppose is technically true: it has a strong plot arc that resolves in exciting and _mostly_ satisfying ways. It just leaves a lot of wild possibilities in the ‘pending’ queue and I’m feeling a bit intense about some of them still, two days later.
Patricia Burroughs is new to high fantasy (as far as I can tell), but not new to writing; she’s been a romance author and a screenwriter for over twenty years and it shows in her storytelling. The book is expertly crafted. She knows what she’s doing. It’s not _perfect_: sometimes the world building is a bit too in media res; sometimes explanations promised are interrupted or never come; occasionally small details are skimmed over where I would have liked to have seen them explained; sometimes (like me) you get a crazy idea and fly with it for too long.
The plot takes a few twists that — for me — meant I rushed through the second half quickly. Some really dreadful things were foreshadowed and I wanted to get them over with as quickly as possible. But dreadful events are never throwaway events. They matter. Because our heroine is going to change the world, one way or another, though perhaps not in the ways the entities steering her would like…
(Can you see why I like this book so much?)
And I hope if you’ve been reading this far, you’ll give the book a try so I’m not alone in anticipating the second volume.