Genre mashups are a mature art form these days. We’ve thrown together religious pilgrimages and sci-fi apocalypses, Victorian morals and modern technology, operas in space, and aliens visiting us across time. My personal pick: that time someone decided to mash up dragons and tea cups.
In recent years, a glorious lot of authors have realized many of the people who like spending time in the highly rule-bound world of Regency England—where the color of your dress and the number of times you may dance with someone is strictly dictated (two, unless you wish to look very particular, my dear)—also enjoy seeing the merry havoc wreaked by dropping it face-first into the rule-breaking speculative fiction genre, where fans of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer can find the same exquisite character work and droll farcical touches…but with magic thrown in, making everything more delightfully madcap, heightening the suspense, and surprising you into laughter as you see how even the most robust sorcery can be tamed by old fashioned British manners. Here are six fantasy books fans of Jane Austen will adore.
Sorcerer to the Crown, by Zen Cho
A 2015 release that received All The Praise, this debut truly deserves it. Cho takes us to a Regency England whose Polite Society is still bound by strict rules of class, rank, and gender, still caught in a years-long struggle with Napoleon Bonaparte—but this time, there’s magic about. The story centers on the struggles of the Sorcerer Royal, Zacharias Wythe, who is caught up in his quest to bring England’s failing magic back and protect the island from enemies, foreign and domestic, who would destroy it, or him. Enter Prunella Gentleman, a beautiful, spunky girl who happens to be the possessor of a great deal of magic (and the an ability to quite unintentionally throw everything around her into chaos), and who Zacharias takes on as a pupil as she embarks on the London Season of her dreams. It’s part social critique of the Regency novel, part serious fantasy, part meditation on empire, part romp, part screwball comedy, and all delightful.
Sorcery and Cecelia: Or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
These two authors wrote this novel using a very old fashioned Regency device: the post. This epistolary novel is presented as authors wrote it, in a series of letters sent between two best friends and cousins across the city and country worlds of genteel Regency England. One, Kate, goes to London for her first Season, while the other, Cecilia, stays at their estate. Both girls soon begin to have encounters with magic, including evil magicians, magical feuds, and one enchanted chocolate pot. It’s a charming tale, with a store of witty one-liners, farcical situations, and a great deal of warmth and innocence at its core. Suitable for young adult fans as well as adult readers.
The Temeraire series, by Naomi Novik
On the more martial side of things are Naomi Novik’s Temeraire novels. The title comes from one of the main characters: a dragon named Temeraire. Temeraire and his partner, the aviator William Lawrence, are a fierce (and often fiercely awkward) pair serving in the Royal Aerial Corp. Their battles with French dragons in the skies above the Channel complement the historical naval and ground battles proceeding below, making this a mix of alternative history and fantasy adventure (as the books go on, the history gets more and more… well, alternative). Temeraire and Lawrence make for a great straight-man-pulling-hair-out/outrageous-thing-doing-creature sort of team. They go on increasingly perilous, politically precarious adventures throughout Europe and Asia, becoming deeply involved in politics, dragon-related and very much not. Peter Jackson optioned the rights to this series and, frankly, that makes sense, considering its action and epic scope. Here’s hoping the movie gets made—but read these first!
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
What more is there to be said about this novel? It’s already a classic of the genre. The fruit of ten years’ labor, it depicts another war-torn Regency England (no dragons this time) where magic has long ago disappeared, on the way to becoming misty, half-believed legend. But no longer, thanks to the appearance of Gilbert Norrell and his new apprentice, Jonathan Strange. These men bring the practice of magic back to England in a big way, interfering spectacularly in the lives of England’s gentry and in an even bigger way in the Napoleonic wars. But tension builds between the two over the best way to handle the dangerous, unpredictable nature of magic—and more so of that strange, unknowable land, Faerie. This book is an astonishing homage to the likes of Austen, Dickens, and Tolkien, as well as the magisterial Great Man histories (oh, those footnotes!) of the period, not to mention fairy tales and folk wisdom. It’s an incisive meditation on character, class, race, and mythology. It’s a masterwork of the genre and nobody should pass it by. (Clarke also wrote a collection of short stories and fairy tales set in the same world, The Ladies of Grace Adieu. Delightful. And as a bonus, you’ll recognize some friends from the novel.)
The Hanged Man, by P.N. Elrod
This one’s more Victorian than Regency, but I’m going to let it slip in under the wire because it still has all the tea cups you could ask for, still concerns itself with the vagaries of upper class society and, mostly, it was one of the more delightful concoctions I read last year. It takes place in an alt-history, more feminist version of Victorian England. Alexandrina “Alex” Victoria Pendlebury is a psychic, trained since childhood to serve the Royal Psychic Service, helping to solve crimes with her mental abilities. However, she soon encounters a pair of murders that not even her powers crack. As she continues to poke and prod at the case, she discovers more and more threads that seem to lead to a much wider magical conspiracy with roots in the heart of England’s ruling classes. As more and more unfortunate incidents begin to occur, escalating into full on disasters,and time is running out. It’s a fast-paced adventure as well as a societal satire, never losing the plot or its sense of humor along the way.
Soulless, by Gail Carriger
This series has been a fan favorite for years. Carriger has created a vaguely steampunk world where supernatural creatures and magical abilities exist—but so, as in all these novels, does the daylight world of buttoned-up England, carrying on. Alexia Tarabotti is the focal point, and the reason for its title: she is a young lady with no soul, which gives her magical abilities that have so far kept her safe and able to go about her life as a scholarly young lady with an interest in books, a spinster just barely included in Polite Society, making her way with the help of books and tarts. But then she finds herself caught up in a series of suspicious vampire attacks and disappearances. Something rotten is afoot and she, and the dark, mysterious Lord Maccon (a rather attractive Scottish werewolf), are soon on the case! These books’ many fans love them for their wit and cleverness, as well as their bubbly, fizzy plots (with a dashing hint of danger) and a ongoing romance that has made many a reader swoon. If you like your madcap turned up to eleven and your characters to strike farcical poses with the best of them, this is the place for you.
What books would you add to this list?