Friday, May 4, 2018

Short Book Reviews: Guy Fawkes with Magic

Fawkes, A Novel by Nadine Brandes (Thomas Nelson)

This YA novel centers around two brilliant premises. The first is the setting, England on the eve of the Gunpowder Plot (1605) and the origin of Guy Fawkes Day. The second involves a fascinating new system of magic in which power arises from the various colors, focused by specially constructed masks, constructed by the practitioner’s same-sex parent. A third strength arises from the protagonist narrator, son of the conspirator Guy Fawkes, and his inner turmoil as he is drawn deeper and deeper into a plot to blow up King James I’s Parliament.

Therein, however, lie the book’s weaknesses. Few Americans, unless they are English History buffs, are familiar enough with the Gunpowder Treason Plot to appreciate the cultural, political, and legal aspects. The plot in the book follows the historical order fairly closely but not always in the most logical fashion. Magic is tacked on to historical events; practitioners use their powers only when they don’t change the way things really happened. But any world in which people wield those powers is going to operate very differently than ours, and that requires careful working through all the implications of those powers, of which I see little here.

The attempt to translate the historical Protestant-Catholic struggle into a battle between those who adhere to the color system (“Keepers”) and those devoted to the primal White Light (“Igniters”) is awkward and often confusing. The real struggle was based not only in religious dogma but in politics, arising from the establishment of the Church of England with King Henry VIII and consequent independence from Rome. Queen Elizabeth, Henry’s daughter, did much to establish religious tolerance, although even her emphasis on secular loyalty could not eliminate the plots to restore a Catholic ruler. Without the context of the struggle, the rift between Keepers and Igniters, each hating the other for no apparent reason, come across as superficial. This is all the more so because for most of the story, I had trouble remembering which side was which. Everyone has access to the White Light (which is a snappy, smart-ass voice, quite apart from any references to direct experience of the divine, which also strikes me a reversal of the Catholic-Protestant quarrel). Anachronisms of speech and social attitude added to the confusion.

Besides the system of magic, this story includes a supernatural “Stone Plague” that infects the victim and gradually ossifies both skin and internal organs, resulting in death. Somehow Igniters have concluded that the plague is the fault of the Keepers and the only way to bring it to a halt is to slaughter all of them. Since no one offers any other explanation for how this fascinating disease works, and apparently the magical healers are just as ignorant and incurious, this persecution is arbitrary and baffling.

Despite its significant shortcomings, this novel has many appealing moments. If it sends readers to the history books to find out what really happened, or generates conversations about prejudice and religious persecution, so much the better.

The publisher asked that I include a disclaimer saying I'd received a complimentary review copy through NetGalley and my opinions do not represent theirs.

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