In a debut novel, James introduces readers to an alternate modern-day England where enticing drama and social unrest mix with aristocratic scandal and glamorous magic.
Luke and Abigail Hadley are teenagers living in an England ruled by aristocratic families who wield magical power. All commoners without magical “Skill” are obligated to serve for a decade as slaves, either in the industrial horrors of a slave town, the lowest and most dangerous ranks of the military, or on the grand estates of their masters. When Luke and Abigail’s parents decide that their whole family should serve their decades together, Abigail manages to get them assigned to the lavish and powerful estate of the Jardine family, but a last-minute reassignment sends Luke to the miserable slave town of Millmoor. Separated from his family, Luke finds friendship among a plucky group of abolitionists playing a dangerous “game,” and the threads of his story begin to tangle with the political intrigue and powerful magic that Abigail stumbles into at the Jardine estate. The plot proceeds at a satisfying pace, switching between storylines at just the right intervals to gratify both suspense and impatience, and while the architecture of the story is not particularly original (conjuring up the specters of Les Misérables and Downton Abbey), its execution elicits the pleasurable urge to find out what happens next. The characters are similarly engaging, a cast of likable and occasionally unusual individuals who slip easily into the reader’s imagination, and while the jarring elements of their world—a society that contains video games and earbuds nestled alongside both magic and systematic, socially accepted slavery—might disorient at first, their selfish motivations and competing desires for maintenance or righteous change pull believability in their wake.
An absorbing first installment that presages an intriguing new fantasy series.