It made no sense. Who would bother to spy on her? She was the seventeen-year-old daughter of an earl. She was barely allowed to visit the chamber pot without a chaperone. Nothing interesting ever happened to her.
—A Breath of Frost, Alyxandra Harvey
Famous last words, right?
Lady Emma Day is in the midst of her debutante season, but her heart isn’t in it: Everyone promised her stolen kisses and handsome young men, but no one wants to dance with the daughter of a known madwoman, and besides, there seem to be far more wrinkly widowers on the prowl than dashing young bucks. Emma is a bit too conventional to out-and-out flout the rules of society like her cousin Gretchen, but she’s not a romantic like her cousin Penelope, either. Until the ball erupts into chaos—a girl is murdered and a fire breaks out—she’s pretty much dying of boredom.
That, however, will be the last moment of boredom she experiences...possibly ever. Over the course of that night, she finds out that A) magic is real, B) she’s a witch, C) she’s suspected of being a MURDEROUS witch by D) a mysterious Order that has it in for her, E) everything she knows about her mother is a lie, and F) Cormac Fairfax, the jerk of a guy who broke her heart months ago knows all about all of it.
A Breath of Frost is a big, fat book, in terms of page count AND content: There are a lot of characters to keep track of, a whole lot happens, and for the most part, Harvey eschews exposition in favor of letting the reader discover Emma’s new world along with her. While it’s entirely entertaining from moment to moment—extremely so at points, especially when Cormac’s five younger sisters are involved—as a whole, it’s somewhat overwhelming. But not necessarily in a bad way!
The high points:
The setting & era: It’s a fantasy novel set during the Regency period. Need I say more, Sorcery & Cecelia fans? Okay, I will! Harvey acknowledges the strict social stratification of the period in that there are magic users in all economic brackets, but that only the upper class magic users are A) trained and B) remotely respected. Also, as you’d expect, there’s quite a lot about gender, and about the very few avenues available to young, “respectable” women.
The dialogue: It ranges from light-Regency speak (“Maman?”) to modern-day (“Best. Ball. Ever.”), but somehow, probably since Harvey clearly doesn’t expect us to take it too seriously, the mishmash works. Also, the sniping between the debutantes, between Cormac and his sisters, between Cormac and Emma, between Cormac and Emma’s cousins (are you sensing a trend here?) is really, really funny.
The comfort-level: Readers will note similarities to lots of other stories, but again, the mishmash works: Similar to Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, every magic user has an animal familiar that somehow reflects his or her inner self. As in the Harry Potter books, the magic school bears a striking resemblance to old-fashioned stories about British boarding schools, complete with midnight feasts, mysterious texts in the library, eccentric instructors and a snarky bully. And, as in Sorcery & Cecelia, there’s a nice balance among the Regency trappings, the fantasy elements and the romance.
The humor: Above all, despite multiple murders, a family secret that may eventually destroy lives and a powerful secret society that is so caught up in its starched-shirt version of justice that it’s willing to condemn children for the sins of their forebearers, more often than not, it’s a FUNNY book. A headless horseman is fought off (in part) with pilfered snuffboxes, lots of shrubberies are jumped into, and there is a Witch’s Debrett’s. A WITCH’S DEBRETT’S. That’s so hilarious, I can’t even.
Is it somewhat uneven? Yes. Could it have been edited down a bit? Probably. Am I going to read the sequel? HECK, YEAH.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.