Stephanie Burgis’ The Harwood Spellbook novellas are stories about breaking old traditions—and making new traditions—set in an alternate version of nineteenth-century England with magic, elves, and fey. In this Angland, Celtic Queen Boudicca successfully defeated the Romans with some aid from her spell-casting husband, and the country has been ruled by a powerful group of women, known as the Boudiccate, wed to magicians ever since. After all, it is known that women are most suited to politics given their practicality, and men are most suited to magic given their creativity.

As the daughter of a member of the Boudiccate, Cassandra Harwood was supposed to follow in her mother’s footsteps, but she always dreamed of following in her father’s footsteps instead. She was never interested in politics or diplomacy (nor did she have an especially diplomatic nature), but she was drawn to magic from an early age and discovered she had a talent for it. Though she was discouraged from pursuing her ambitions, Cassandra persisted and became the first woman accepted into the academy for magicians, where she excelled as one of their best students.

But this is not the story of Cassandra’s struggles and triumphs as the first female magician in Angland: It’s about how she picks up the pieces and moves forward after she burns out her magical ability attempting to prove herself as the only female magician in Angland. When Cassandra is introduced in Snowspelled, the first Harwood Spellbook novella, she’s devastated by the loss of both her magic and her fiancé, another magician she believed to be better off without her once she lost her ability to cast spells (though Wrexham, her ex- fiancé, disagreed and was unhappy she broke off their engagement). In this delightful book, the two get a second chance at romance when they both attend the same winter house party, and Cassandra contends with a new problem involving a devious elf-lord’s challenge.

Snowspelled also shows Cassandra grappling with her career as a magician having ended and coming to realize that, although she no longer has the ability to cast spells, she can still advance the cause of gender equality in magic by sharing her knowledge with other women who wish to pursue it. Thornbound is largely about Cassandra taking that next step in her journey, and it begins with her preparing to open her magic school for young women.

However, some of the women of Angland are not pleased with her new venture and have concerns like it potentially leading to men getting wild ideas about practicing politics. As a result, the Boudiccate sent Cassandra’s new husband away in the middle of their wedding reception and kept him traveling on urgent business, seemingly just to spite her. Weeks later when Cassandra is ready to accept her first students (and her husband is still away), they also send a delegation that appears rather eager to find reasons to shut down her academy to observe her first classes. To make matters worse, Cassandra discovers evidence that someone currently residing in her estate/school made a deal with a fey, which can only bring further trouble. And when a house on her property becomes entirely covered by thorns in the course of about a day, Cassandra begins to wonder if the recurring nightmares she’s been having about being held captive by thorns in the forest are more than simply bad dreams…

Like the previous novella, Thornbound is a fun page-turner: cozy, predictable, and effortlessly readable with its entertaining, smoothly flowing prose and dialogue. I admired the skill that went into making it such an enjoyable reading experience, but I also felt that it was fairly forgettable once I finished it since it lacked the freshness of its predecessor. The plot advanced with Cassandra’s marriage and new magic school, but it didn’t significantly expand the world or characters. Besides introducing the fey, it didn’t seem there was much new about the setting or its workings, and I also didn’t think the fey were fleshed out enough to be particularly compelling.

Not surprisingly given the novella’s short length, Cassandra is the only character with any depth, and she too seemed rather stagnant. Although she has undergone some growth since the previous volume as she seems to be more accepting of her circumstances, she also makes some of the same mistakes: trying to solve problems on her own without giving her extremely supportive family a chance to help her and assuming she knows her husband’s goals without asking him. It certainly makes sense that she wouldn’t change old habits overnight, but at the same time, it wasn’t particularly engaging to revisit the same issues once again, especially since they were handled similarly in the first volume and continued to make up the majority of Cassandra’s self-created problems. (That said, I did get the impression she was finally starting to understand what she was doing by the end of this story, but this also seemed like an attempt to neatly tie things up before the main character focus changes in the next book.)

Thornbound is entertaining but a bit too tidy and straightforward to be a standout book for me personally. However, I appreciate Stephanie Burgis’ fluid writing and optimistic storytelling, and I think it may appeal more to those looking for a pleasant, diverting tale (assuming they have already read Snowspelled, of course!).

My Rating: 6/10

Where I got my reading copy: Electronic ARC from the author.

Read Chapter One of Thornbound

Review(s) of Previous Books in The Harwood Spellbook:

  1. Snowspelled