Beachside Publishing, $4.99
Heart’s Magic is the third book in Gail Dayton’s alternate Victorian series, following New Blood and Heart’s Blood. It had been about five years since the publication of Heart’s Blood, and since this one is independently published, I can only imagine that the delay was caused by publisher shenanigans that ultimately ended with the rights of the series finally being reverted to the author after some protracted back and forth. I’m just guessing, so don’t quote me on that.
I enjoyed the previous two books, and I was only aware of this book recently, but I wasted little time getting my grubby paws on it. I feel that Heart’s Magic can be read without having read the previous books first, since the plot is mostly focused on relationship stuff and the setting is not too complicated. Still, you can always read my reviews of the previous two books to get a better idea of the setting. Don’t worry, you won’t get spoiled – the bulk of the plot is self-contained within each books, and the only series arc – these folks are trying to figure out a way to eliminate the “dead zones”, which are areas that are completely devoid of life and magic, “populated” only by mysterious mechanical creatures – moves slowly enough for new readers to get a grip on things. However, do note that the couples from the previous two books feature prominently here as allies to our main couple here, and there are some off-hand references to events in previous books. Nothing too confusing or complicated for readers to fill in the blanks, but some readers may prefer to just read the previous two books first to avoid feeling that they are missing out on some parts of the jigsaw puzzle.
This time around, we finally get to see what the schools of wizardry and alchemy are about. Our heroine Elinor Tavis is a wizard, while her mentor Harry Tomlinson is an alchemist. Contrary to the usual definitions of “wizard” and “alchemy”, Harry’s school of magic is the more conventional fireball-and-mass-destruction variety, while Elinor as a wizard channels her magic through herbs and potions. Elinor is an apprentice only because the current governing body of sorts is an old boys’ club and it is near impossible for a woman to gain admittance into the club and, more importantly, resources like books and magical ingredients that come with the membership, without a male mentor. Elinor is actually a very powerful wizard, and Harry treats her as his equal rather than his student.
The dead zones are still around, but the bulk of this story, unfortunately, focuses on Elinor beating male patriarchy and discovering that she is the most special of all the snowflakes in the land. I used the word ‘unfortunate’ because the author’s portrayal of our heroine breaking the glass ceiling is more like the Powerpuff Girls versus Mojo Jojo. There is no subtlety at all. All the males who are against girl power are portrayed as cackling, screaming, ranting lunatics full of bile and insanity, while the males who agree with the women are portrayed as respectful bland entities who serve more like nodding bobbleheads on the powerful women’s shoulders. As a result, Heart’s Magic reads more like an overly simplistic agitprop than anything else.
I find myself thinking how much more compelling the author’s girl power message would have been if the villains had actually been smart, cunning, or capable. Here, the so-called powerful women may as well beat up piñatas for victory, for all the fight the patriarchy puts up here. It’s hard to celebrate the strength of the magic vagina if the adversaries are all cardboard-thin and puddle-deep.
When Elinor’s really special snowflake status is revealed, I actually roll up my eyes because, given how generally useless and inept the patriarchy is in this story, making the heroine even more special is overkill. It’s like calling in a tank to get rid of an ant infestation. What’s the point?
The romance between Elinor and Harry is, even more unfortunately, dire. Harry has always been in love with Elinor, and shortly after the story opens, Elinor defeats one more screaming, ranting, insane, and cheating member of the patriarchy and becomes a Magister – the highest ranking and most powerful wizard in the ruling body. She takes the Magister title only reluctantly, because she’d rather focus on her studies without having to deal with the politics that comes with the title, but the other three Magisters, one for each school, tell her that she needs to step up, so that all four of them (she, Harry, and one half of each of the couples in the previous two books) can institute changes that would bring in greater equality between males and females in the magic-user communities. Harry has been waiting all this while to proclaim his love for Elinor, and now that Elinor has risen to the top, he reasons that she can afford to be distracted from her studies by his amorous wand-waving.
Elinor, however insists that they cannot be together, and she cannot do all these “licentious” things with him because… well, she gives a lot of reasons, reasons that Harry and myself roll up my eyes at because they are so silly that they are not even worth repeating here. Harry basically waves his wand a little harder, and Elinor finds herself so swept away by all that abracadabra of his that they end up getting “licentious” together. She immediately goes eek-eek-eek after that, but that’s okay, Harry can wait for her to come to her senses. That’s nice of him, but I don’t have the patience to deal with Elinor’s contrived reasons to keep the romance drama going.
Heart’s Magic, therefore, is a story that you shouldn’t read for the romance. The romance is basically Elinor taking her time to act like an indecisive twit from a chick-lit story, and Harry is pretty bland. But what else is there? Well, the urban fantasy elements are very slow moving, and focusing mostly on Elinor discovering how awesome she is and the ridicule of the patriarchy, with her cloying “Me? I’m awesome? Me? But I only wanted to be simple old me!” attitude as icing on the cake.
The whole thing feels very dated, as such simplistic male-female yin-yang “With our naughty parts combined, WE ARE MORE AWESOME!” elements are more prevalent in paranormal and fantasy stories of the 1990’s, but they would still be fine if the whole girl power thing actually allows the ladies and their white knights to face some worthy adversaries. Without worthy adversaries to challenge the good guys, the end result is more sleep-inducing than exciting. At the end of the day, yes, hurrah for gender equality and down with patriarchy, but this isn’t a poster to be pasted on a college dorm notice board. This is a story, and I have certain expectations of being entertained by it – expectations that remain unfulfilled at the end of the day, alas.