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Stephanie Burgis’ The Harwood Spellbook series thus far follows women scandalously refusing to conform to the traditions of Angland, an alternate version of nineteenth-century England with magic and mythical beings like elves and fey. In this world, the Celtic queen Boudicca successfully defeated the Romans, leading to the establishment of a group of ruling women known as the Boudiccate—and a strict gender divide between political and magical careers. After all, it’s known that ladies are suited to pursuits requiring a practical nature, such as governing, and gentlemen are suited to more creative pursuits that will not be hindered by their emotional, irrational natures, such as magic.

But Cassandra Harwood was determined to learn magic regardless of society’s rules and has been working to break down barriers for women. Aided by her perseverance and her family name, she became the first woman to be accepted into the academy for magicians. Though she excelled at it, her magical career was cut short after she had an accident that prevented her from being able to actually cast spells. After she had some time to grieve and accept the fact that her plans had been upended, she decided to use her knowledge to help other women who wished to learn magic do so, and she opened the first school for female magicians in Thornbound. The recently-released novella Moontangled deals with the aftereffects of events in Thornbound for Juliana Banks, a magician-in-training at the new school, and Caroline Fennell, a politician—a secretly engaged couple whose relationship is in jeopardy.

After having received some unusually distant letters from Caroline since the last time she saw her, Juliana believes that the ball at the Thornfell College of Magic will be the perfect opportunity for her and her fiancée to reconnect. But their private excursion into the woods does not end up being the romantic rendezvous she’d imagined: Caroline breaks off their engagement, assuming Juliana will be better off without her now that she’s a pariah with damaged career prospects. Though devastated by this turn of events, Juliana says she understands without telling Caroline how she truly feels, assuming that her formerly betrothed has chosen her ambitions over her.

Yet the woods of Thornfell are dark and full of terrors, and when the fey who lurk there interfere in their lives, both women are determined to protect the one she loves…

Moontangled is a short, sweet, compulsively readable tale that unfolds over the course of one night. Although it is a self-contained story that explains circumstances from both Juliana’s and Caroline’s (third person) perspectives, it’s probably best to read Snowspelled and Thornbound before this novella. Cassandra’s books introduce these two protagonists and the world’s social rules, plus Thornbound has a plot involving both the local fey and the scandal that led to Caroline’s current situation and the romantic misunderstanding. Moontangled most likely can be read and enjoyed as a standalone, but I think having that background on these characters and the Boudiccate’s expectations helps with most clearly understanding its major conflicts.

Like the rest of this series, Moontangled is a fun story with a happy ending. Also like the rest of the series, it doesn’t have the type of character depth that makes stories especially memorable to me, yet I admire Stephanie Burgis’ skill at writing this type of story. I really appreciate that these books contain problems that could make a book seem rather heavy—such as obstacles related to gender discrimination, the grief and loss of no longer being able to practice a craft one dreamed of and worked toward, the choice between true love and the surest path to achieving one’s lifelong career goals—without feeling melancholic. This is in part due to them having HEAs, but it’s also due to them having a somewhat whimsical tone and being set in a world that seems removed from ours with the gender perception reversal and abundance of magic: it may be an alternate version of our world with some familiar general issues and attitudes, but it’s VERY alternate.

The main relationship hurdle Juliana and Caroline encountered is similar to the one Amy and Jonathan dealt with in the prequel novella Spellswept (my favorite in this series so far). Like Amy in the prequel, Caroline hopes to one day join the Boudiccate, meaning she’s expected to wed a magician—but instead she fell for and became engaged to Juliana. The two kept their betrothal secret and hoped that Juliana would be able to fulfill her own dream of becoming a magician despite the gender barrier, especially after learning Cassandra Harwood did just that.

With the new magic school for women, it’s possible that Juliana could be that magician, just as they’d planned—but with magic typically being the domain of men, Juliana is going to have a tougher time being accepted as one. And suddenly, Caroline’s swift political climb that made it seem inevitable she’d become a member of the Boudiccate one day reversed, resulting in the miscommunication that is integral to this novella’s plot.

At first, I wasn’t sure that this misunderstanding was believable. Caroline and Juliana were fully aware of the fact that being together might hinder Caroline’s ascension to the Boudiccate when they became engaged, and Juliana’s acceptance into the school for magicians meant that there was hope she would become one after all—which made it seem odd that Caroline would just give up when they faced yet another obstacle. But at the same time, that was the only way they saw this working out and it was going according to plan until Caroline’s aunt/mentor made her professional life unexpectedly difficult.

Although part of me still feels like Juliana and Caroline were close enough that they should have communicated better, I also feel like this ends up being plausible in these circumstances. They did spend some time apart with only handwritten letters for communication, and Caroline had some time to get it stuck into her head that she needed to let Juliana go for her own good. Not being in political circles, Juliana didn’t realize what Caroline was going through since her response to events was to withdraw and keep everything to herself—and with some lingering issues from her upbringing, Juliana’s quick to assume she didn’t mean as much to Caroline as her profession, especially since their engagement was kept secret due to Caroline’s career goals.

Moontangled is the story of Juliana and Caroline working through these problems while facing the problem of protecting each other from the dangers of the woods of Thornfell College—with a dash of magic, of course! I did feel that it resolved too hastily and easily given the scope of the lack of communication and that the fey’s “mysterious” intent was obvious from the start, but I also found it to be an entertaining, diverting tale that doesn’t take long to read due to its quick pacing and short length.

My Rating: 6/10

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

Read an Excerpt from Moontangled

Reviews of Other Books in The Harwood Spellbook Series: