SNOWSPELLED by Stephanie Burgis (SPFBO Semi-Finalist Review)
The fifth Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (SPFBO) is reaching the end of round 1! We spent the last five months cutting our batch of 30 books down to 6 semi-finalists, the second of which (The Steel Discord) was eliminated yesterday. For the rest of this week we’ll be reviewing – and eliminating! – the rest of these books in full before announcing our SPFBO 5 finalist on Friday.
Now for our next semi-finalist elimination…
In nineteenth-century Angland, magic is reserved for gentlemen while ladies attend to the more practical business of politics. But Cassandra Harwood has never followed the rules…
Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.
Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.
But the greatest danger of all lies outside the manor in the falling snow, where a powerful and malevolent elf-lord lurks…and Cassandra lost all of her own magic four months ago.
To save herself, Cassandra will have to discover exactly what inner powers she still possesses – and risk everything to win a new kind of happiness.
A witty and sparkling romantic fantasy novella that opens a brand-new series for adults from the author of Kat, Incorrigible, Masks and Shadows and Congress of Secrets.
(The cover? Production value? Prose? Editing?)
I like the cover, though as I don’t like most fantasy “kissing books”, I was a bit wary. After only one page I was quite sure I’d like it, though! The tone and voice just clicked with me right away, and I felt like I was reading Jane Austen – with a troll!
I like witty banter and a bit of snark in my characters, and this one delivered on that. So I was hooked early on! It brought to mind Sorcerer to the Crown (Cho) and Soulless (Carriger). It’s quite a bit easier and lighter than Cho and tamer than Carriger, but I think it definitely could appeal to the same readers. (It did to me at least!)
I’m not usually a fan of people on covers, but I do quite like this one; there are some nice little details, such as the scroll work at the top, which just hints at that little bit extra effort that’s been put into presentation. It also gives an excellent impression of what to expect from this story! I have to admit, I liked what it was selling and I was very much looking forward to this.
Thankfully, I wasn’t disappointed – for the most part. I clicked straight away with the setting and the characters; it was as if Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell had wandered into an Austen novel to find Jasper Fforde in charge of the day-to-day running of the place… The prose was immediately easy to read, and I’d flown through the first couple of pages without quite realising, although occasionally there was an awkward turn of phrase – perhaps it could do with one last polish. (e.g. “…and I was vibrating like a maddened dog with frustration.”)
The cover feels a bit amateurish to my eye – either that or bidding for a Disney princess-ish vibe. Against that the feel of the piece demands something more Jane Austen-like – perhaps Keira Knightley and Colin Firth exchanging brooding looks within the midst of a blizzard-ridden snow globe.
The prose is – as we have all commented – very regency, as is the book to a large degree. Somewhere between Sorcerer to the Crown and Pride and Prejudice. Its Austen allusions come out explicitly in some of the prose: “It was a truth universally acknowledged that women were the more pragmatic sex.” A touch of intertextuality – part-reference, part-homage – that had me smiling.
I have to agree to disagree, and disagree to agree with Beth here (sorry not sorry). I quite like characters on front covers, but I wasn’t a big fan in this instance. But then, this isn’t my typical read, and as such it’s probably a case of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.
I’m going to reserve my comparisons as the other judges have already flown the flag there, however, I will say that this is a welcoming easy read, despite my initial reservations that this probably wasn’t going to be for me.
Laura: Like Mike, the cover – though very pretty – immediately signaled that Snowspelled wasn’t going to be the sort of thing I usually like to read. However, the narrative voice had me hooked from the very first page. The prose is phenomenal, and (as others have mentioned) strongly reminiscent of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown. Truly excellent stuff.
Thoughts on… THE CHARACTERS
(Do you have a favourite? Is the main character sympathetic? How’s the dialogue? Are the protagonists believable? Do we care about their plight?)
As I said above, I really enjoyed the characters’ voices and was happy to spend time with them and see what would happen to them. Taking into account how short Snowspelled is, I am amazed by how well they are developed and grow on the reader. Only the bad guys felt a little bit bland and predictable.
I especially enjoyed the banter and the interactions between characters in this one, and smirked quite a bit while reading!
The characters are most definitely this book’s strongest asset. Burgis has really taken care here to create what I felt were believable characters, with depths and quirks that were easy to relate to. There is a reasonable sized cast, and everyone felt distinct and individual.
With regards to the protagonist, I did occasionally feel she was somewhat whiny! It was clear she’d been through a difficult time, and was trying to come to terms with something, but at times it felt this message was becoming somewhat laboured. I did find myself caring about her though; and not only her, but secondary characters also.
There is a delicious tension to the relationship between the protagonists – we are thrown in medias res into the tumultuous aftermath of a broken relationship and a broken career and Burgis’s characters convey that very effectively. The side characters also play their part: the brother and sister-in-law are credibly solicitous yet also with their own independent motives and priorities, while the fringe of oddballs throw in an entertaining comedic turn – for example, when the druidic Sansom proclaims “I’ve felt nature’s blessing of moonlight on my bare buttocks,” allowing us to laugh and grimace as we share such an unwanted mental image with the protagonist Miss Harwood.
The characters feel like they’ve been cut straight out of the book and flung into real life as 3D versions of their paper-bound selves. Each of them have lives and liabilities of their own. A damned if they do, damned if they don’t, Downton Abbey cast. Their exchanges are witty, and deserving of a wry smirk, but I didn’t get the same level of excitement here that I did from other finalists.
The narrator’s voice is what sold me on this book. As a result of her sparkling wit and self-deprecating charm, I strongly sympathised with the protagonist. Her interactions with the other characters – both friendly and antagonistic – kept me engaged throughout, though I must agree with Julia that the villain was disappointingly bland. On the plus side, the secondary plot thread involving Miss Fennell and Miss Banks was one of my favourite aspects of the book!
Thoughts on… PLOT/STRUCTURE/PACING
(Slow start? Hard to keep up? Does the author use flashbacks/POV shifts? Do these work well or not? Did each chapter keep you turning the pages?)
I really liked it from the very start. The actual plot was a bit lacking, but the characters made up for that in my eyes. So I wouldn’t recommend it for the plot, but it wasn’t “bad,” it just felt a bit – small? The pacing was good and I had a hard time putting the book down once I started!
Unfortunately, this is the point at which this story disappointed me. I felt the plot was far too simplistic; we’re effectively told who the culprit is at the start. Thinking that would be much too simple an answer, I went along with the protagonist as she hunted for her answers, only to be disappointed when there wasn’t a twist forthcoming. You can highlight my spoiler-ridden explanation here:
Cassandra needs to discover who is working the weather magic. But when the Elf Lord demands she does this, she tells us that the only creatures who can do weather magic is elves. Therefore, it must be the elf? As I said, that seemed too obvious, so I thought perhaps it was one of the women who wanted to study magic. But no! It turns out that is was the Elf Lord to begin with, and it really was that straightforward.
In all honesty, Snowspelled felt like an episode in-between much more interesting stories; either the story of how Cassandra lost her magic, or Cassandra’s magic school. Ultimately I’d have loved more depth to the story.
I agree with Beth that the plot twist lacked the sharpness to be truly satisfying. In some ways there wasn’t the space in this short volume to aspire to something more complex. The delightful societal worldbuilding could have been spread out through a longer book to give opportunity for more plot development and maybe to take a different direction. There is a second volume, and with shorter books you always wonder if the author could have combined the two – but Cassandra’s story takes a very different and essentially unrelated direction in the second book, so I can see why that wasn’t an option here.
This isn’t a great big ol’ bookshelf-breaker of a fantasy tome, not does it pretend to be. It’s short, sweet, and as Beth and Theo have said, rather straight to the point – or at least straight to the answer from the start. I like a rollercoaster ride of tension, with twists and turns along the way to keep you guessing. But because I knew this was just a ride to the finish, and never at threat of coming off the tracks, it wasn’t as exciting for me.
Similarly to Beth and Julia, I felt a bit let down by the plot’s simplicity. It started off strong, and I found myself racing through the chapters and mentally congratulating the author on her page-turning pacing. However, the last few chapters consequently felt a bit anticlimactic; the mysterious plot is revealed as not being that mysterious after all, and is very quickly and easily dealt with. That sense of the characters (and the world) not really being in any danger meant that the story itself lost most of the tension it had built up so well at the start, and the denouement didn’t quite deliver the charged atmosphere and surprising twists the early narrative seemed to promise.
However, it’s still an extremely worthwhile read, especially for those in search of something shorter than your typical fantasy novel. I read Snowspelled in two sittings, and I regret nothing.
Thoughts on… WORLDBUILDING
(Does it have a magic system? How immersed do you feel in the world? Does it feel original? Why?)
This is another point in which this story truly shines. Like her characters, Burgis has put a lot of thought and detail into her world building and this creation of a society which could almost be recognisable as Regency Britain… were it not for the Boudiccan/matriarchal government, the Elf Lords, the troll tax (I loved this Ffordian detail), and of course the magic. I would absolutely come back to this world and read more!
I liked the vibe of “Sense, Sensibility and the duplicitous fae;” the conventions of a stiff-laced magical society were evoked well. Lumbering trolls and confounding snowstorms all built up a credible alternate nineteenth century. I was also interested to hear from the author that this was written in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, so the driving theme of demarcation between women doing politics while men do magic strikes a particular chord. No work – not even a work of fantasy – is ever written entirely in isolation from its contemporary context!
Worldbuilding is one of the key draws for me with this book. It’s quirky, and the novelty of that never wears thin. It’s sprinkled throughout, like a fine dusting of snow, or spell dust…snowspelled, as it were. True, this being a regency fantasy (we’ve all said this at least once by now) much of the world is already built upon arrival, but it’s the little differences that make all the difference to this story.
I really liked the setting that instantly gave some Jane Austen vibes, and then added Fae and trolls and magic! The magic was explained well enough – without any lengthy info dumps – to not feel random and yet still had some mystery to it that kept me interested. I liked the way we started out thinking it’s pampered nobles, and then get to learn more and more about them and their background. For me it was exactly right for this sort of book.
Laura: I too was impressed (and more than a little charmed) by the author’s worldbuilding. From the troll-enforced toll roads to the Celtic-inspired names of political families, Snowspelled takes place in a historical not-quite England with fantastical touches so subtle and natural as to be believable.
QUOTATIONS that resonated with you
I really liked this line on Cassandra’s feelings following the death of her mother: “I’d been beset by grief for her loss and for all those bitter battles that we never have a chance, anymore, to forgive…”
This is easily one of my favourites I’ve read in 3 years of judging SPFBO. I liked the light and fun tone with just enough tragic backdrop to not feel just “fluffy” but to keep me engaged all the way through.
I enjoyed every page and was really sad that it was over so quickly! I’ll definitely check out more books by the author.
I wanted just that little bit more from this story. It left me wanting to read more of it, which is a great quality in a book that is part of a series; but the sense of dissatisfaction outweighed this for me. It felt too much like a stepping-stone, and not enough like a story in its own right.
It was only after I finished this book I realised it was essentially a book about a disability. Cassandra, the protagonist, has lost her ability to do magic – a disability she feels profoundly at every level as she watches less competent but still able-magicked people around her fumble their way through spells she once had dancing at her fingertips. While I hesitate to make too much of that analogy, I think Burgis represents it with creditable sensitivity.
I should just re-emphasise that there was a tremendous bunching of semifinalists and my decisions on which order to place them in were based on small differences and personal preferences. Had Cassandra been given the opportunity to stretch her legs in a longer story with more intricate double-backs in the plot then this would easily have made it into my top two.
This did a lot of things right, but I still wanted more from it. Both in terms of length, and time to really get settled into the world, and from the story itself. I went into this thinking it wasn’t going to be for me, but it won me round to the point I enjoyed reading it. And if there were more room to move within the plot, and a few surprises here and there throughout, this would have been higher for me.
With its engaging prose, likeable characters and brilliant worldbuilding, Snowspelled was a very, very strong finalist contender. But, as with Uncanny Collateral, the majority of us ultimately felt that the story didn’t quite have enough substance for it to successfully stand against the other finalists.
However, I believe every single one of us intends to pick up the sequel, and we’d urge every reader to give Snowspelled a go!
***Commiserations to Stephanie Burgis and her regency romance fantasy Snowspelled.***
We’re now down to just three semi-finalists. Check back tomorrow for our next elimination!
Who will be our SPFBO 5 finalist? Find out this Friday!
If you’re following SPFBO 5, let us know about any entries that have caught your fancy! Join the discussion on social media (there’s a Facebook group here) and weigh in on Twitter using the hashtag #SPFBO.
Stay tuned over the next two days as we review our remaining three semi-finalists and eventually pick our FINALIST (exciting!!). If you have no idea what’s going on, go ahead and check out our introduction to round 1!