Another fantastic magical history!
Finding a way to weave an alternate plot into established history is no easy task, and often historical fiction finds greater freedom by looking at minor figures, on the fringe of history, to find the wiggle room to invent. But, as HG Parry so recently showed with her Shadow Histories duology, tackling the major figures can be hugely satisfying, and magic is a powerful way to open up our ideas about these imposing characters and offer up clever ways to adapt history without breaking it too much.
Heartfield succeeds spectacularly with her hidden, magical war in the lives of sisters Charlotte and Antoine, who grow up to be Maria Carolina, Queen of Naples and Marie Antoinette, Queen of France.
The embroidered book of the title is a book of spells the sisters discover as little girls, previously the property of their murdered governess, a rogue magician. The young archduchesses, daughters of the Empress of Austria, Marie Therese, decipher the spells within and use them to navigate the limited world of marriages and royal alliances they’ve been born into. But once married, as queens, they embrace a shadow world of secret magical societies and the power and influence they might enjoy by becoming ever more adept at magic. The shadow politics of this magical world soon bring the two queens into an invisible war for control of magic worldwide, between a privileged brotherhood of magisters who wish to keep magic contained, focussed on controlling the courts of Europe, and rogue factions of rebel spell casters, keen to bring magic into the open in the name of freedom abd revolution. The sister queens find themselves on different sides of this shadow conflict, where even their love for one another cannot protect them both from the ramifications of war.
All of this weaves seamlessly into the established lives of Maria Carolina and Marie Antoinette, masterfully reimagining the motivations of both women and looking at the ways in which even the most priveleged women of their age were oppressively restrained and yet found ways to take and create power. The two sisters are beautifully realised characters, and the ways in which sacrifice informs the whole of their lives is elegantly explored through the mechanics of the magic they engage in.
I genuinely adored this book and will be looking forward to Heartfield’s next. If you’re a fan of HG Parry, Alix E Harrow, Jeanette Ng or Susanna Clarke, this is absolutely for you. Stunning fantasy.
My thanks to Harper Voyager UK for the first look at this superb book.