Reviewed by Pauline Morgan
There are times when it is very difficult to decide what audience a writer is targeting with their work. Children’s books, aimed mainly at the under twelves, have simplicity of style that allows the reader immediate access to the action. Often at this stage of reading ability, the majority of children don’t have the patience for long descriptions. Also, the characters are often a little older than the target age group. Teen books have more of everything as the readers like to have their skills stretched. Characters are of an age to make their own decisions and often authority figures take a back seat. There is an awakening of the sense of right and wrong, alongside the start of sexual awareness. Young Adult fiction takes everything to another level. The protagonist needs to be at least seventeen (depending on the country of origin) as at some point they will either think of or actually experiment with sex. There is more description and the plots are more convoluted but the young adult takes centre stage most of the time. In adult fiction, anything is possible. The discerning reader wants a sophistication of plot, a richness of description and a full gamut of emotions – though not all expressed by the same character.
Thus, Chatelaine of the Guild is an enigma. It doesn’t really fit in to any one category but has elements of several. The principal character is seventeen year-old Lady Samantha Hampden. She is taken out of her school for Young Ladies, on the death of her aunt. She is told that she has inherited the post of Chatelaine to the Guild of Magicians. This is a clue that this is an alternative universe. She inhabits a steam-punk Victorian age that has dirigibles for transport and wizards. Otherwise, history has largely continued along its recorded course. In London, the Chartist movement is causing concern by holding rallies which turn riotous and making demands that Parliament does not want to grant – such as votes for the working man.
The post of Chatelaine of the Guild of magicians is passed down the female line and she is the only person available despite her youth and inexperience. Her age would indicate that this book would fall into the Young Adult category although many of the scenes are told from the point of view of other characters, more a feature of adult novels. The job of the chatelaine is to oversee the accounts of the guild and assess the budgetary needs of the various departments. The Guild itself is an adjunct of the fledgeling police force, helping maintain law and order. Most of the members are either gentlemen or aristocrats. Women and the working classes are not admitted to their ranks, despite the ability to do magic is indiscriminate. Practising magic without guild membership is illegal. Samantha doesn’t waste time in making changes, finding some practices immoral and diplomatically turning them to advantage.
The plot itself moves along at pace but there are a number of features of the book that are frustrating. This is an unusual world, yet it lacks the rich descriptions that would bring it to life. Too many of the featured characters, though neatly sketched, are not given the space to develop in depth giving the impression of shallow, emotionless individuals bordering on the stereotypic. There are plot features that are missed opportunities. From the start, Samantha is told that both her predecessor and her daughter were murdered. Even Queen Victoria tells her that. Yet, Samantha doesn’t appear to feel that her life is under threat. It might be expected that a sub-plot would be hunting down of a potential murderer but she shows no curiosity as to the circumstances of her Aunt’s and cousin’s deaths. A book of this type demands that the young protagonist should get herself into all kinds of predicaments in search for the truth. Instead, Samantha concentrates on making life better for working class women with some magical ability by encouraging them to use healing talents rather than being prostituted.
The style is very straightforward with little embellishment and insufficient description to make this a satisfying adult read, though younger readers – ten to thirteen – may well be happy with the level of detail. The other thing that is missing is the romantic element. At seventeen, in an establishment full of young men, one might expect a romantic development, even if it turns out to be unsuitable. Samantha is an ideal character to take the lead in the story as she is the outsider and we can discover the world along with her and through her eyes but this might be a case of a male author not being able to fully get inside a female character’s head.
Overall, because this novel cannot make up its mind what it wants to be – teenage, YA or adult – it doesn’t live up to expectations. If it was twice as long with more descriptions, the murderous sub-plot brought to the fore and an intense romantic element it would have been much more satisfying.
My other issues with this book have nothing to do with the skill of the writer. Even if it is sold for less, I do like to see an RRP on books. The cover is good but a little dark and it is worth remembering that the printers of independently published books can only print what is given to them. This one needs a better copyright page.