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The Magicians and Mrs. Quest by Galen Beckett

Reverting to a habit demonstrated in some of my earlier reviews, I’m going to start this piece with two minor reminiscences. My grandma was, for the most part, the leading exponent of the idiom in our family. As the matriarch, it was her right to gossip and spin tales for the entertainment of all — the baton of aphoristic pithiness passing through the female line when my grandma died. She it was who would sit at table, munching happily on a piece of lettuce, and weave tried-and-trusted phrases into our conversations. Most appropriate for the dining table was that some “thing” was neither fish nor fowl — that while a dish might obviously hold a food content, its source was not immediately recognisable. However, on occasion, I recall that she was outdone by a cousin who would visit periodically. As a boy, I was pathetically eager to please (curious how radically a person can change over time) and often volunteered to do things. On an early visit by this plain-speaking Yorkshire woman, I asserted the right to make the tea. In anticipation of compliments, I hovered at the table’s edge, watching as the pot was ceremonially poured. A critical eye was brought to bear on the resulting brew and, with the addition of a little milk, the liquid swirled around the tongue as by a connoisseur in search of a vintage blend. I was rewarded with the comment that the tea was like gnat’s piss. This was not just a reference to the colour, but also the failure to achieve the usual thick consistency that would hold a spoon upright in the cup. Instead of feeling humiliated or embarrassed, I simply laughed. We all did. Now, sixty years later, I can trot it out again to a purpose and it should be just as amusing as it was back then, except that shifts in culture twist the interpretation of meaning. Any authors of a nervous disposition should stop reading here — an honest opinion is coming.

First, a few definitions: a parody is an attempt to produce humour by aping another’s writing style. Most of the best examples are mercifully short because one soon tires of a mannered comedy. Except in the postmodernist sense, The Magicians and Mrs. Quest by Galen Beckett (pseudonym of Mark Anthony), is not parodying Austen and Brontë. If anything, the result is more of a pastiche where elements from different books are jumbled together to form a new whole. From a technical point of view, it is perfectly possible to write a novel about a society that has a highly stratified class structure based on patriarchalism in modern language. It’s also possible to allow a novel to take on different writing styles to match the evolving content. But here, I fear, Beckett has decided to conflate Pride and Prejudice with Jane Eyre to make a fantasy novel. It feels as if the dictates of plotting were driven by the need to parallel the source material rather than to produce a natural narrative. I wonder what comes next. If a young male character turns lusty, will we have Fielding? If our heroine is marooned on an island, will we have Stevenson? I could conceive of innumerable different plots Beckett could mine and produce magical twists and turns. Except this would be tiresome. In fact, after twenty pages, the aping of a writing style from out of our time was tiresome. It served no purpose other than to demonstrate that here was an author on a mission to serve up rehashed Austen, much as a desperate cook might gather leftovers to cobble a cheap meal together.

One might forgive this overuse of different styles if the narrative itself held real interest but, sadly, the plot is weak. In part, this flows from the need to subordinate the magical and fantasy elements to the styles and plots of the originals used as inspiration. But, more seriously, it cannot decide what kind of book it is. Either Mrs. Quent is a clever heroine who, when presented with a puzzle, will worry away at it and, in the style of an amateur detective, arrive at the solution to the riddles and puzzles that surround her. Or she’s a helpless thing, cast hither and thither by the exigencies of events, but comes out smiling because she’s a spunky and resourceful woman. As it is, she’s presented with a riddle and then shown by the author how to solve it. This is not a book about magicians striding out across their country to defend it from invasion. The three key characters are not really aware of their powers and so bumble around in the Dickens sense of the word, inadvertently producing sunlight from cucumbers as Swift would have approved. When Mrs. Quest does magic, she just does it because she can. It’s all too convenient and the scenes have a perfunctory feel to them. To make the book work in a better way, Beckett should have invested a little time reading Horace Walpole. The Magicians and Mrs. Quest is a book that cries out for some real Gothic, not the namby pamby Brontë version. Some purple prose would have enlivened proceedings and given the whole some heft. Frankly, my female relative had the right of such a lack of heft, because this novel is like gnat’s piss and we all know what that tastes like.

For reviews of the next two books, see The House on Durrow Street and The Master of Heathcrest Hall.

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