I’ve been thinking about this recently, but describing a book as “historical fantasy” seems like a contradiction in terms, and yet, there’s no better way to describe this series, which was recommended to me courtesy of the tumblr hivemind as a sapphic historical fantasy series.
Margerit Sovitre didn’t expect to inherit a baron’s fortune, and with it, a bodyguard in the form of Barbara. At first, Margerit protests the need for Barbara’s protection, but she wasn’t counting on earning the enmity of the new baron and soon she can’t imagine life without her by her side. All is not well in Alpennia, however, with the Prince ill and the succession in question, Margerit finds herself drawn to the mystical rituals known as the Mysteries of the Saints, and now she’ll need Barbara’s protection more than ever to survive the deadly intrigue of the court.
I’m struggling with finding words to describe this book. There’s a bit of political intrigue, a little action, a bit of (Catholic) magic and a lot of mingling in Society and maintaining one’s reputation. According to the author, Alpennia is a fictional country nestled between Italy, Switzerland, and France. I’ve heard it described as “Ruritanian romance” but as I wasn’t familiar with that term, I was reminded of Regency romance.
The major players in this slow burn of a novel are Margerit and Barbara, the point of view characters. Margerit is a typical fish out of water protagonist who suddenly finds herself a highly eligible heiress, though she would rather spend her days buried in books than trying to land a man. Barbara, on the other hand, was trained from a young age by the former baron to be his armin (professional duelist) and finds to her chagrin that his death hasn’t freed her from service. There are some interesting secondary characters, like LeFevre, the baron’s (now Margerit’s) man of business, Margerit’s aunt Bertrut, the prickly scholar Antuniet, and the eccentric Vicomtesse de Cherdillac. My one issue is that we didn’t get to see very much of a couple characters.
Politics, religion, and reputation play a big role in Alpennian society. At times, the politics can be a bit knotty, but the basic idea is that there’s a crisis of succession based on the validity of a marriage contract. At one point there’s a discussion of some of the finer points of Alpennian inheritance laws and debts that becomes a plot point later on. The magic system is focused on the mysteries of the saints, which combines ceremonial magic with intercessory prayer and rituals in a way that reminds me of the game Darklands.
It’s a very slow-paced book, there isn’t really a sense of urgency in the plot until the last few chapters, when the plot threads are neatly tied up. In a book like Throne of Glass, where the main character is an assassin, the focus on dresses over murder was disappointing (even if Celaena is recovering from being imprisoned) but here it makes sense: Margerit is an heiress and would-be scholar, and Barbara doesn’t have many opportunities to leave her side, so of course there’s going to be a lot of visiting, parties, the opera, and the like.
In terms of potential triggers, there is an attempted rape/sexual assault and the attacker appears later in the story. The romance, which is between Margerit when she technically “owns” Barbara (it’s complicated) might make some people uncomfortable. However the power disparity between the two is acknowledged and Margerit does make multiple attempts to free Barbara from her obligations, which for me is more palatable than, say, the relationship between the two main characters in The Winner’s Curse. Although the main romance is between two women, Alpennian society is still very heteronormative, so characters make certain comments about how Barbara might be one of *those* women because she dresses in masculine clothing.
Overall, I definitely enjoyed this book. I’m not sure if it would make my “Top Ten Books of All Time” list, but the Alpennia series is now one to watch. I would recommend it if you like books like The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner, just be prepared for a slower read.