Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Newt's Emerald

Rating: 3 stars
Length: Compact (291 pages in hardcover)
Publication: October 13, 2015 from Katherine Tegen Books
Premise: Lady Truthful, nicknamed Newt, is preparing for her debut in society when her family's most precious possession, the Newtington Emerald, is stolen. 
Warnings: none, really-- implied threats of sexual assault, maybe?
Recommendation: If you're short on magical Regency novels or are determined to read all of Garth Nix, this is a fun way to spend an afternoon. Try it from the library or buy it when it comes out in paperback.

What makes this quick and charming:

Nix manages to maintain a light and humorous tone for most of the book-- the dialogue is full of quips and banter, and most of the secondary characters excel at being just quirky enough to be fun without distracting from the main plot. The hunt for the stolen Newtington Emerald adds some intrigue and genuine danger (often overwhelming scenes of parties or other light moments), but the book is fun, skating through obstacles in a way that makes it easy to just keep turning the pages.

The magic could be more detailed, but it threads through the background and adds all sorts of subtle details-- the social use of glamour at fancy parties is great, as is the wonderful explanation of Napoleon's imprisonment, which I won't spoil for you. It adds a good sense of richness to the world, and Newt's own small powers over the weather and nearby animals are often crucial to the plot. The traditional powers among families and carried in magical artifacts that are either still in circulation or locked away in museums also adds a sense of age that you don't see in most Regency-inspired fantasy, better balancing the adventure and romance elements.

Truthful's aunt, the Lady Badgery, steals every scene when she sweeps onto the page, and I would cheerfully read several prequels about her younger life. Disguising Newt as a man and providing the glamour (attached to a false mustache) is her idea, and her many friends, enemies, and exploits show up in tantalizing hints. She has a forceful personality, strong magical gifts, and a keen enjoyment of the whole situation even when it's dangerous, which helps maintain the light and frothy tone that Nix is building. 

The red pen: 

The biggest problem here is that the book is too quick. Nix mentions in the afterword that he was inspired by the works of Georgette Heyer-- Truthful's love of adventure mirrors that of several Heyer heroines, but this plot feels more compressed than any of those, partly because it doesn't have much in the way of secondary plots or time for the characters to make plans and reflects instead of leaping from one situation to another. The book could have comfortably been another 100-150 pages longer and been much more engaging, with time for more character interactions and development for people who aren't the main couple (mostly Newt, since Charles's characterization comes more slowly) or Lady Badgery. Nix mentions in the author's note that this was originally a book within a book, something to convey clues for a larger mystery, which explains a lot-- the initial take would have been much shorter and not needed to stand on its own.  

This version has been reworked into something longer, but it still feels like the bare bones of a larger story with a very compressed climactic scene. The adventure of retrieving the Emerald has some good moments, and the romance shows flashes of being fun, but there's just not enough time for either of them to fully shine, which makes the ending unsatisfying. The plot threads are tied off, but it feels more like a series of checked boxes than an earned resolution. We're told to worry about the Emerald, and we're told the reasons for tension between Newt and Charles, but there's no peril from the jewel until the end and not visiting Charles's perspective really limits how much you can care about the romance.

Keeping the story so short means that parts of it are predictable-- with so little space, there are fewer distracting details and no secondary plot to divide the reader's attention. Predicting when the disguise will slip or what Newt's feelings are is easy even from a chapter or two out. For a straight-up romance, the predictability would work; for something wrapped in dangerous plots and secret identities, it doesn't. 

The verdict: Newt's Emerald desperately needs to be longer to carry off everything that it's trying to accomplish, but it's fun nevertheless. 

Enjoyed this? Try:

~Any Georgette Heyer novel, or several. Cotillion is beyond charming, and The Corinthian and The Masqueraders both feature female leads who aren't afraid to wear pants in the good cause of having adventures. 
~Soulless by Gail Carriger. It's more explicit about the supernatural and has more dark moments, but it's well-executed and gives itself the space it needs to really work.    

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