The Regency England that I know—the one familiar from film, public television, the novels of Jane Austen, and very little actual historical knowledge (a lack that is entirely mine and not the authors’)—is a setting particularly suited to the addition of magic. The rituals and manners of the place are both fascinating and so foreign to contemporary life that they almost seem like magic themselves. Exaggerate a little, squint one eye, and magic slips right in, looking like it’s been there all along.
In The Twelfth Enchantment, David Liss makes excellent use of this affinity. His Regency England is on the brink of a secret war whose conflict fills the spaces between parlor conversations and grand dances, transforming social niceties into the clever moves of an ominous and thrilling game. The forces of newly mechanized industry have begun to encroach on ancient tradition, and the very ordinary, very prospect-less Lucy Derrick is caught between the two of them.
My favorite part of reading a well-executed novel set in Regency England is the conviction that every character is, beneath their decorous behavior, awash with honest emotion and desire that are only more focused and direct because of the restraints society puts on them. Lucy is resigned to a practical and dull life when we first meet her. She is an orphan. She lives with a horrible uncle. She is going to marry a man who she does not love or even find interesting. And then a beautiful, raving man arrives on the doorstep, interrupting her future and bringing both power and magic to the forefront of her life. Lucy suddenly finds herself standing on the edge of an adventure and in the middle of a war.
Her story is a satisfying entertainment, the kind of book that goes down with ease and leaves behind neither barbs nor saccharine aftertaste. Its characters are animated and recognizable. They fulfill the roles of a fictional Regency England admirably, and Lucy in particular has an earnest and fallible openness that makes you want to spend time in her company. Liss gives the novel the voices and manners you might expect from the setting, but he also relishes the brisk, incident-filled tension of a modern thriller. There is discussion of marriage proposals and wardrobes in this England, but there are also murders, abductions, a haunted estate, and a violent encounter with a turtle.
The Twelfth Enchantment is familiar. The characters and novel fulfill, with very little exception, the promise of the cover. This is not a criticism. Liss manages to tell a story that is both comfortable and compelling, inhabiting a well-known building, but filling it with a sparkling and good-humored party that occasionally revels in riotous, romantic, or black-hearted moments. It is the kind of novel that welcomes a reader and offers both fun and adventure with unabashed generosity. That it does so with magic and re-written history only adds to its charm.