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The Twelfth Enchantment is Enchanting

July 12, 2011

The Twelfth Enchantment
David Liss
Random House
August 2011
ARC from Random House, thanks to Lucy Gibson, who sent me a copy.

The Twelfth Enchantment is a combination of things I love. Historical fiction, set at the start of the Industrial Revolution in England, it encompasses a period of social history I find fascinating. Give me a good ballroom dance, a few pelisses and fans, and I’m happy. Even better: there’s a well-constructed magic system, with a particularly scholarly bent. I knew David Liss did historical fiction, but I’m thrilled that he’s making a foray into the supernatural- and I hope he continues to work with the juxtaposition of the two genres. And there’s romance, too. Romance with banter! I feel like this book was made to order, just for me.

Onto the story: Lucy Derrick is a woman of genteel breeding, and really tough luck. Her father and beloved sister have both died, forcing her to live at the mercy of a mean and stingy uncle, with a marriage proposal from the odious Mr. Olson looking like her only escape.
Enter the enigmatic Miss Crawford, who suggests that Lucy might have more power than she knows. Power over her destiny, and those who have stolen what’s rightfully hers. Learning magic is the key.

I’m impressed that the magic system Liss sets up is more nuanced than flashy wish-fulfillment. Lucy has to study hard, puzzling over Agrippa and other classical scholars, working symbols and charms carefully, to do what she wants to do with magic. I’m impressed, too, with the carefully constructed symbolism and rules worked into the magic charms. Lucy can only meet an adversary with the charms and spells she’s studied and prepared, though she can improvise a little. That lets Lucy be a resourceful heroine, but not all-powerful.

Layers and layers of intrigue surround what Lucy has to do. It’s not just a facile black-white quest of girl heroine taking down the big baddie. Much more well constructed as to motivations, and allegiances Lucy has to make, and has to question. Also, a few touches that feel as though they are references to fairy tales and folk lore that I just can’t quite name– they work seamlessly and timelessly.

Setting his story at the start of the Industrial Revolution, Liss uses the role of magic to raise interesting questions about historical attitudes toward industrialization versus nature, reason versus emotion. Having the characters play those out in the context of Lucy’s adventure and magic, renews debates and discussions I vaguely remember from history and English classes. There are a few historical cameos as well. I might have giggled delightedly and said “Hi Byron!” to my book, when he entered the scene.

The Twelfth Enchantment is definitely in my sweet spot, with so many elements I know I like. I can see other fans of Lauren Willig and Marissa Doyle snapping this up as delightedly as I did. (Pro tip: clear your weekend. You won’t want to do anything but read this, once it gets going.) Although Lucy’s story feels decidedly finished by the end of the tale, I’d love to see Liss revisit this magic system and this time period in further novels.


For every book I read in 2011, I’m donating $1 to the New York Public Library.

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