The Rules of Enchantment by Wendy Tardieu
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Magic, Ghosts, Artifacts, Teachers, Students, and Sex
Wendy Tardieu’s Rules of Enchantment (2020) reads like a cross between Naomi Novik’s Uprooted (wherein a virginal young lady discovers magic and romance after entering the ominous tower of a notorious lone wolf wizard), Patricia McKillip’s Alphabet of Thorn (wherein a young female scribe-librarian stops merely reading and recording magical adventures and starts participating in them), and the Harry Potter series (wherein magic students are divided into four distinctly different and rivalrous magical halls). With a healthy helping of graphic hetero sex. According to the cover, this is “an erotic fantasy adventure novel.”
In Tardieu’s novel, the partially exiled Chamber of Shadow wizard-assassin Leith (the most ambitious and powerful student to come out of the Academy) is suspected of working towards retrieving the dread Gauntlet of Malantheus, so the Academy Headmaster Wickham sends the renegade a student, the enthusiastic former Shadow pupil and current scribe Kyler, so she may unwittingly spy on and or distract him. Leith plans to drive away Kyler (who had to give up magic because she either bored or injured her teachers), but his wicked crone partner in crime Marisele advises him to teach Kyler while carrying on with their ominous secret project. Surely it’s only a matter of time before teacher and student become romantically involved, as they are the only characters described as having “tresses,” Leith’s black and Kyler’s chocolate. Kyler’s best friend at the Academy, the Chamber of Sight apprentice Rowan, is none too pleased with her new assignment, because he wants to marry her and fears Leith’s reputation for illicit liaisons. But Wickham sets in motion his long game strategy with Kyler as pawn.
The above five are the main characters of the novel, one of the pleasant things about Rules of Enchantment being its compact size and modest cast. Tardieu’s book is no doorstopper with countless characters, cultures, sub-plots, and settings. Yes, it’s still possible to write a short, less-is-more, stand-alone fantasy novel.
But is her book a worthy fantasy? She writes some cool names and concepts, like the horrifying Hypnogoths (reminiscent of LOTR Ringwraiths + Harry Potter Dementors) who really don’t want anyone to mess with the enchanted relics and weapons they guard, and the Necromantis curse-spell that blasted Malantheus’ rebel followers in the past and still torments their spirits in the present. The four Chambers (Shadow, Light, Sight, and Spirit) have potential. There is neat dragon blood (that floats upward) and a fine dragon skeleton “which hung from gossamer wires and seemed to float above her.” She writes creepy horror, as when Leith’s voice goes “slithering into the youth’s ears,” or when “The bodies grew robes and pale flesh, like dead plants recovering leaves. . . As faces formed rapidly over ashen skulls, their mouths grinned and their eyes without irises shone like frosted windows.” There are evocative scenes: “The twilight lingered unnaturally long outside the windows. The study began to smell of blood and ashes as Leith neared the end of the incantation.”
On the downside, Tardieu uses unmysterious Harry Potter-like Latin-esque spell names (e.g., Modifus, Levitum Momentus, Ascendo, etc.), and her writing can be unmagical to the mind or ear, as when it--
--feels corny: “Her eyes, warm gold-green and rimmed by black curling lashes lit up at the sight of him” (the comma after “lashes” didn’t make it into the e-book edition).
--seems stilted: “’How foolishly bold is Wickham’s brood!’ she shrieked with laughter. ‘Don’t you know how quick your death can be delivered?’”
--unnecessarily uses adverbs for dialogue tags, when content and context already convey how people are saying something: “’And what am I do to? Juggle apples for her?’ Rowan asked cynically.”
--overuses passive forms of to be in descriptions: “The hall was decorated in rich, ruby-colored draperies, and the air within was warmed by torches fixed high on the walls. A banquet table was prepared, along with a large space in the center where people were dancing. There were musicians, bouquets of Gentilium flowers, and barrels of wine.”
Yes, Novik and McKillip do romance and magic more pleasurably, beautifully, and originally than Tardieu, but she does make me want to continue reading her story, and I did enjoy the sex scenes. But... At twenty-one, Kyler is old enough, but she is a virgin when she starts, and there is something a little disturbing about an older and more experienced teacher teaching his student about sex while deflowering her. Furthermore, as I voyeuristically watched a woman and a man having sex, I almost lost the sense of Kyler and Leith as characters driving the plot forward.
Indeed, the erotic sex is so distinct from the magic that it doesn’t feel like an integral part of the fantasy. Early on, Kyler says, “lust impedes magic, we all know that,” but that dogma is debunked by subsequent love-making and spell-casting, and the problem (for this reader) is that magic and sex neither hinder nor enhance each other here. By contrast, Novik’s Uprooted depicts the main characters’ different magics working together to generate a profusion of sensual flowers (that deceive a real bee!) in an act of intimacy, sharing, and union which morphs into actual sex, at first embarrassing both people. Instead of that kind of thing, after a steamy scene, Kyler says to Leith, “You’ve taught me so much more than magic,” as though sex is other than and superior to magic. Merging graphic sex and fantastic magic might have been more stirring.
If you like sexy hetero sex scenes and compact stand-alone magical epic fantasy novels, then, this book might be good for you, but if you prefer sensual and magical prose, work by writers like Novik or McKillip might fulfill you more.
NOTE: I was given this e-book by the publisher to review.
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