Reading: Subversive by Colleen Cowley

Title: Subversive
Author: Colleen Cowley

Genre: Gaslamp Fantasy
Format: Print

Recommended: Yes

Summary:
First book in the Clandestine Magic trilogy, this book follows Beatrix as she supports her sister Lydia, financially and emotionally, as she attempts to win the presidency of the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic. All magic users (wizards) and politicians are men in this alternate history, and the way wizards create spells is by transferring the energy from leaves with a combination of magical commands.

We join Beatrix the day Peter Blackwell, childhood rival and sole wizard to come from their hometown, arrives and compels her to become his assistant. While Beatrix fears Peter was sent on behalf of the government to sabotage her sister’s future, what she discovers is far more dangerous than she could have ever imagined.

Thoughts:
I really enjoyed this story! It has an inventive magic system that lays the groundwork for political intrigue and women’s equality in this alternate reality. There were some troubling use of compulsion against the heroine, but since the characters also struggled with the unintended compulsion, I didn’t see it as a reason to put the book down. The romance was a struggle for me due to the compulsion… but I enjoyed the way Cowley flipped the script by having the unrequited person be male rather than female.

For writers, read this book to learn about how to write a fantasy where magic is not the primary plot driver. This book reads like a political thriller where magic is the weapon rather than machinery. The main characters feel emotionally real by the end of the story, but the true driver the consequences of transferring leaf energy into magic, and just who has access to that sort of magic.

I also really appreciated the Cowley included a note to readers to visit her website if they wanted to avoid any triggering content. She doesn’t give away spoilers, but she does let you know about the compulsion I noted above, and other possibly traumatic events. I wish the cover art was a little more impressive, though… I feel like it distracts from the fine writing hidden between the covers.

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