Stephanie Burgis, Snowspelled

I’ve read and enjoyed Burgis’s regency fantasies for younger readers, and in general the combination of regency romance with fantasy is exactly the sort of fluff that I like. As readers of this blog know, I’ve also spent part of the last few months reading (and rereading) books about the fraught relations between fairyland and magical Britain. So this novella, involving an alt-historical England with magic and an uneasy treaty with the elves, and an estranged couple coping with Still Having Feelings, was always going to either be my new favourite thing, or just vaguely disappointing because I’ve spent far too much time thinking about what I want these genres to do/be/achieve. Snowspelled does some things I like, and if this was a proper review I’d spend more time on those things (some are mentioned below), but here I want to think about the structures underpinning its world.

I’ve said several times before (to the point that people who’ve read this blog before are rolling their eyes) that a regency romance that delves too deeply into the politics or economics of historical Britain is generally setting itself up to alienate me, because I cannot be that interested in the personal lives of people whose comfort, I’m reminded, is predicated on huge amounts of suffering, most of it visited on black and brown bodies. And in any case at this point, the genre is so well established that it can be treated as its own little mythos; one that doesn’t require much thinking about its nuts and bolts, because it’s more of an aesthetic than an exercise in Worldbuilding. Snowspelled is set in a regency-flavoured “Angland”; a country where women wield most of the political power, as part of a council called the Boudiccate, but only men get to study and “cast” magic. We enter the story at a point when a major disruption to this situation has already occurred. Our protagonist Cassandra Harwood has previously managed, through a combination of talent, privilege, and stubbornness, to force these institutions to allow her to study magic, and before the story opens had already proved herself one of the most powerful magicians of her generation. But evidence of talent (and several important academic papers, a detail I liked a lot) has not led to job opportunities–while her brilliant fiancé has been taken on by the Boudiccate, no one seems interested in a female magician, however brilliant. Out of frustration, Cassandra has attempted to prove herself further by carrying out a spell too strong for a single magician–nearly killing herself in the process, and ensuring that she can never cast magic again. This is the situation on which the book opens: Cassandra is unable to do magic, has ended her engagement, and isn’t entirely sure what to do with herself.

So far, so promising–the book negotiates the fraught social aspects of the situation well, and is generally nuanced about Cassandra’s coming to terms with this massive change in how her body inhabits the world. It’s a short book, so doesn’t have space to tease out the complexities of how gender works in a context where social roles are so rigid, but political and social power seem more evenly divided. But again, if you’re a reader of regencies, the idea that a bunch of well-connected upper-class women form a centre of political power is familiar enough not to jar.

But another thing for which the book doesn’t have space is an account of global politics in this alternate universe, and how Angland fits into them. Cassandra’s former fiance is a man by the name of Rajaram Wrexham, who is “from a Maratha-Anglish sailor’s family”, while her sister-in-law Amy has “dark brown skin”. At least one other member of their social circle is a powerful older woman with dark skin. We’re not given any particular sense of how common this is within their world, but the characters themselves seem to treat these signs of racial difference as relatively unremarkable. So okay, Angland is multiracial and takes racial difference for granted in ways that Regency England did not. But I find myself wondering whether this is worldbuilding along the lines of E.K. Johnston’s That Inevitable Victorian Thing, where the point seems to be to create a situation where the reader can enjoy the trappings of regency society (again, a society built on slavery, empire, and other horrors) in ways that don’t make her uncomfortable, and that absolve the world thus created of the horrors of its imperial context–if black and brown characters are also getting to be debutantes, can it really be that bad? Of course it is possible to do a Brown People In Empire Line Dresses book that doesn’t erase imperial violence–Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown does a lot of this work. I don’t think Snowspelled is in any way trying to be that sort of book, and in any case it’s much shorter, so perhaps it is unfair to compare the two. But I want to know what the relations between the Marathas and the Anglish are, and whether all the tea the characters drink is somehow obtained through fair trade. How many of the politically-connected families whose women primarily make up the Boudiccate are gaining part of their wealth from plantation slavery, or is that not a thing in this world? Are the black and brown characters the result of histories of imperial displacement as they tend to be in our own world, cordial diplomatic relations, or a generally freer attitude towards immigration than our own world can claim?

I’d be okay with not knowing any of this (sometimes you just want a nice romance with pretty dresses and no discussion of imperial violence), were it not for the elves.

So: early in the book, Cassandra has an encounter with a sinister elf-lord, with whom she makes a dangerous bargain. The human and elvish worlds are held in precarious balance by a treaty which, if broken, could have horrific consequences for the island both share. The elves have a “kingdom” whereas the Anglish have a “nation”; the elves have less enlightened class and gender politics (and are dependent on traditional hunts–the Tories to Angland’s innocent-of-history Cool Britannia). In the book’s climactic scene, Cassandra ends up defending, not just herself, but Angland (“I won’t break our agreement [...] any more than my nation has”) against charges of treachery. The elf-lord Ihlmere’s anti-human rhetoric is all very familiar; his desire “to bring us back to greatness”, his horror that his ancient culture is being weakened and diluted by human influence and weak liberal policies. He’s the villain, he loses, it’s a happy ending.

But what is defended is an England that is signalled as decoupled from empire, but still filled with tea and the occasional brown person and probably curry–this version of England under siege from sinister forces and manipulators of contracts, already sharing the space of the nation but threatening it from within. I’ve lived in Britain as an immigrant (and a visibly not-white one) as a child in the 90s, and as an adult in the last five years, and it’s impossible for me not to see the process by which the national narrative papered over that imperial history in the late twentieth century, and the disturbing ways in which that papering over has affected my life in the twenty-first. I don’t think, as I say above, that Burgis is attempting to write into/in conversation with postimperial discourse, and that’s fine; but while a book can elide discussion of empire,and can present England as the vulnerable, threatened victim of tricksy contracts, I don’t think the same book can do both without validating much that is alarming about the nation in the present.

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