Gangly and geeky Gray Marshall studies magic at Oxford’s Merlin College, where a mysterious errand with four fellow students ends with a friend’s death, difficulties using his considerable powers, and a summer of confinement at the country estate of his domineering professor Appius Callender. There he meets the professor’s daughter Sophie, whose supposed lack of skill in magic doesn’t deter her from secretly devouring magical lore from her father’s library. Sophie and Gray’s instant camaraderie is tested when they uncover the professor’s sinister conspiracy with the king’s closest advisor, dragging them into an adventure that will uncover the hidden secrets of both their pasts.
The Midnight Queen is the first book in Sylvia Izzo Hunter’s Noctis Magicae series, which takes place in a magical England in a Regency-like era. Naturally that includes a patriarchal disdain for women studying magic, but thankfully Sophie defies those rules and proves to be a likeable heroine, intelligent and quick-witted without being irritably rebellious for the sake of rebellion. Meanwhile, Gray is not the typical macho man, instead lovably dorky and supportive of Sophie to the extent that he’s relagated a bit to the sidekick position once he arrives in the country as her character and magical ability are developed strongly. In fact, it’s mostly the women, including the mysterious housekeeper Mrs. Wallis and Sophie’s spunky younger sister Joanna, who drive the plot thereafter while Gray bumbles about.
The plot itself is engaging at the beginning as Gray and Sophie uncover the truth about the events that have led them to that point in their lives, but dithers after Sophie and Gray escape the Callender household to London in order to save the day. Mostly nothing happens for 100 or so pages as they lounge around Gray’s sister’s house, except their slow-burning romance that mirrors a Shakespearean comedy in their ineptitude to recognize each other’s obvious feelings. Although I enjoyed the action-packed conclusion, I felt like many of my questions about the conspiracy remained unanswered. As well-sketched as Sophie and Gray were, the villains came across as caricatures because of the lack of information about their motives.
Hunter’s writing style truly is gorgeous, and weaves an appropriately magical atmosphere; however, her written content can become clunky, such as the heavily hinted prophecy of “The One” and the tale of the hidden princess. I also felt like she failed to provide adequate backstory to parts of the world that weren’t Sophie&Gray, including Merlin College, the history and politics of their society, and the truth-seeing priests of Apollo who briefly appeared as deus ex machina saviors. Since it’s the first in a series despite its definitive conclusion, perhaps we’ll learn more but that’s no excuse for poor exposition in such a lengthy book.
I was charmed and hooked while reading/devouring this story, but (since I suck) I’ve delayed this review a few weeks and whatever alluring magic I felt then has mostly faded now. Recommended for fans of Sorcery & Cecilia or the Glamourist Histories series, both of which also remind me of fantasy Jane Austen novels, but I would say its not as good as the former if slightly better than the latter.