The House on Durrow Street by Galen Beckett
Given that I was rather rude about The Magicians and Mrs. Quent by Galen Beckett, you may feel some surprise that I should spend more of my dollars on The House on Durrow Street. Yet there was just enough interest in the first to justify following on to the second in the series. To my surprise, it has been worth the effort.
So, dispensing with the usual formalities, we will start with the headline. This is of excessive length, being full of detail the author considers necessary to continue some of the styles-out-of-time that launched us on the series in the first novel. But, once you strip away the affectations in this second venture, it’s actually a surprisingly good story albeit not the most original.
My objection to The Magicians and Mrs. Quent was that Galen Beckett had allowed form to overwhelm substance. In a nutshell, the result was a rather meretricious mashup, contorting various plot elements from Austen and Brontë to produce a fantasy overlay. As we embark on the second volume, there’s a metaphorical moment when you can picture the author pausing her fingers in the air above the keyboard and finally taking note of the modern technology. There’s to be no more bending of scenes to fit as quill pen scrapes across rough-made paper. Rather we are to come into a modern fantasy, set in a different world where magic works. Indeed, arguably, the series is potentially veering towards science fiction as we have a better view of aliens waiting to invade while sentient trees offer a line of defence for humanity. We also have yet another version of the door as a form of instant transportation between two different points (most recently seen in the underrated science fiction drama series called The Lost Room and The Adjustment Bureau). There’s even a way station off planet — Clifford Simak would have approved this touch.
So, to put it mildly, we’ve left Regency or early Victorian England, and entered into a rather darker and more threatening place. Yet some things do remain the same. Women are undervalued and the usual prejudice against homosexuality prevails. The church is corrupt and the political system depends on the aristocracy lounging around in a bicameral parliamentary system supposedly serving the interests of the King and his people. As the death of the King approaches, the question of the succession is potentially going to put a woman on the throne, so we’re back to the predictable sexist prejudices (albeit reinforced by history when the two previous Queens were considered dangerous tree-huggers). There are also competing intelligence services: one working directly for the King and the other being more independent.
The whole is told in a switching point of view format, rotating between Mrs Quent, Eldyn Garritt and Rafferdy. Now married, Ivy Quent finds herself rising through society, her presence now prized in higher social circles as her husband grows ever more successful in the King’s intelligence service. Eldyn is torn between his newly discovered powers of illusion and a lover, and the possibility of the priesthood offering redemption for what conventional society thinks is a life of sin. While Rafferdy is compelled to stand in for his father in the Upper House of Parliament, later taking on the title and seat permanently when his father dies.
There’s lots of detail as we learn more about how the illusionists inherit their powers from their mothers and the risks they run, shortening their lives as they use up their vital energy in the creation of entertainments — curiously, this seems to be inherently a gay power or perhaps a power enhanced through gay love. Ether way the practitioners are marginalised although they are tolerated for their skills. The aristocracy also seem to pass magical ability through their genes with generations of the male lines demonstrating some degree of ability. It’s not clear how widespread magical abilities may be among the female lines, although I suspect the majority are so lacking in self-confidence, it would not occur to them to try.
So there you have it. If some kind editor had removed about 150 pages from this almost 700 page epic, it would have been vastly improved. As it is, the story is surprisingly good so long as you are prepared to wade through a lot of drawing room chatter and more general social gathering. Frankly, most of it is useless padding to add unnecessary period authenticity. Unnecessary because we are clearly not on anything approximating our Earth. Although there’s a certain parallelism with what would have been an English style of monarchy with a failed American colony, everything, including the motion of the planets, is eccentric and out of wack, e.g. the length of the days is continuously variable and increasingly unpredictable. Indeed, that’s one of the more interesting aspects to the puzzle. Why is it that Ivy’s clock gets the times right, but the almanacs are wrong? The third in the series is called The Master of Heathcrest Hall and, while I am not champing at the bit, I am interested to see where the story goes next.
Jacket artwork by Phil Heffernan.