Mallory Lass reviews the Alpennia Series by Heather Rose Jones

The Alpennia Series never stopped surprising me and often put a smile on my face or pulled a laugh from my lips. The theme of “found family” runs through this series and gave me so many warm and fuzzy feelings. I’ve also wanted to give at least one or two of the characters in each book a good shake. I will talk about each book in turn but I wanted to tell you why you should read all three (a fourth is forthcoming). You certainly can read them as stand alone novels, but Heather rewards those who read the series with little threads (both plot points and characters) dropped early on, woven without resolution, and then picked up in later books when you least expect it. The richness of the world of Alpennia, the city of Rotenek, and the characters that inhabit this fictional European place are skillfully built line by line, and by the end you can almost feel the Rotenek river breeze against your face. I am not religious at all, but I found the magical protections, steeped in ancient church rituals, gripping.

These novels are set in the early 19th century and straddle multiple genres with ease. They are historical fiction with a touch of fantasy and a generous sprinkling of romance (not much sex on the page, but the intimacy shown is breathtaking). All three books in this series have a high level of intrigue and mystery at the center of the plot. The characters confront issues of class, gender, race and sexuality. Even though I’m not a big consumer of modern gossip/celebrity news, the societal happenings in Rotenek drew me in and kept me hungry for more, book after book.

Each chapter is written from a different character’s perspective, and by the third book, the cast has grown, and there are six diverse perspectives creating a brilliant tapestry that should be enjoyed with leisure.

Minor spoilers were unavoidable as I discuss later books in the series, but its more the “what” than the “how”, which is the exciting part, so I don’t think it will ruin anything.

Daughter of Mystery

Margerit Sovitre is the goddaughter of Baron Saveze, but aside from providing her a governess, she has little contact with him. She lives with her aunt and uncle in the country and dreams of nothing more than getting to attend university and be a scholar. She has reached a marriageable age and is expected to be presented at society balls in hopes of attracting a suitable husband. Finding a husband is the last thing on her mind.

Barbara is the masculine of center, chivalrous, caring, breeches-wearing character of my dreams. Indeed, she is my favorite of this series. She is an orphaned child, sold into Baron Saveze’s household, and trained up into his armin. A female armin is certainly unique, but the Baron is a bit of an eccentric and he ensures Barbara is trained by the best, so her position is never questioned openly. Being the Baron’s armin shaped her into an incredibly intelligent, strong, loyal woman. She is a keen observer. Known only as Barbara, her identity and past has always been just out of reach for her and the Baron is unwilling to give her the answers she seeks.

Though protecting her charge and anticipating danger is Barbara’s job as an armin, she is frequently called on to leverage those talents to protect those closest to her and she does it with a deftness I find disarming and sexy. Margerit is whip smart, but a bit naive. She has a talent for mysteries that hasn’t been understood or acknowledged. Her determination to control her own destiny and become a scholar is certainly swoon-worthy. The Baron’s death puts these two formidable women in the same orbit, but will his means meet a happy ending, or will it backfire in an unexpected way when his nephew makes a play for the fortune? There is no clear path to freedom, but Barbara and Margerit are destined to walk it together, despite the very real danger lurking in the shadows. Barbara seeks the freedom of knowing who she is, and Margerit the freedom to chart her own course as a scholar, both things neither are in a position to expect. Discovering the mystery of Barbara’s lineage and the expanse of Margerit’s power is a fulfilling journey. Watching their shared love of scholarship grow into friendship with the potential to blossom into something more is one of many delights of this first volume. This story took a while to settle into my bones, but I kept thinking about Barbara and what was next for her and Margerit. Ultimately I wanted more and am grateful this is a series.

The Mystic Marriage (My favorite of the three)

The Mystic Marrage by Heather Rose Jones coverVicomtesse “Jeanne” de Cherdillac is a widower socialite who plays puppet master and matchmaker for Rotenek’s upper crust. She uses her status as both a French Countess and a widower to shroud her numerous flings with various younger female artists, dancers, and singers–and long ago, one notable armin. She is an original cougar, and whoa is she sultry. Her love of women is a bit of an open secret, and as long as her engagements are exclusive to the artist sector of society, her skills in social engineering are in enough demand for people to overlook who she might share her bed with.

Antuniet Chazillen flees Rotenek at the end of the first novel, after her brother’s bid for her uncle Baron Saveze’s fortune meets a perilous end, and the noble Chazillen name is in ruins. She vows to use her skills and passion as a alchemist to benefit Alpennia and restore her family name. She appears in Daughter of Mystery as a bit standoffish and maybe even a little conceited, but also she read queer for me. We share a bit of that “I will be so successful you wont care when you find out I’m queer” vibe. She puts Margerit on the path to discover the expanse of her powers, and I found her intriguing. We get to see her truly vulnerable in this book and she shines. Slowly, through pure desperation she begins forming friendships and alliances again. She seeks out Jeanne early on in hopes that she can find her a female patron for her Alchemy. Jeanne becomes the only person Antuniet feels she can rely on. Jeanne finds herself drawn in by Antuniet’s uniqueness and when she realizes she is in love with her it comes as a great surprise. Antuniet is artfully portrayed as someone who we would now define as demisexual. When Jeanne asks if she would consider a male patron Antuniet replies, “‘I have neither the aptitude nor the inclination to please a man in exchange for his support.’ She left the implications hanging between them.” The tension between Jeanne’s free spirited ways and Antuniet’s reserved nature is deliciously drawn out and negotiated. The dance between them is a courtship for the ages. To work within the constraints of the language and understanding of sexuality in the early 19th century, Heather enlists some endearing metaphors to create a shared understanding of what burns between them. There is more than a little angst here, and it’s all worth it.

In exile, Antuniet discovers a lost alchemist text and hatches a plan to bestow a gift of enhanced gems on Princess Annek to strengthen her court, something valuable enough to restore her name. Unsavory parties are after that same text and maybe her and her work as well. In an effort to outrun those chasing her, she ends up back in Rotenek, a demoted noble with little more than determination to guide her forward. Her motto repeated throughout is “no way out but forward” and she embodies that at every turn and setback. She shares a milder version of Margerit’s power, but her passion lies in the science of alchemy. Will Jeanne be just the person to mend Antuniet’s relationship with Margerit and Barbara and help restore her place in society? Or, will they become the scandal of the city? Can Antuniet really pull off her great vision or will the shadows of the past make themselves known? There are many problems to work through and that kept me on the edge of my seat. I was nervous it would wrap too quickly or unbelievably, but I should have known I was in good hands. That said, as soon as I was done with this one I started the third book!

Mother of Souls

Serafina Talarico, born in Ethiopia and raised in Rome, first makes her appearance at the end of The Mystic Marriage. The wife and assistant of a Vatican archivist, who comes across Margerit’s mysteries and travels to Alpennia seeking out her tutelage for she shares some of the same powers. Her husband travels frequently in search of rare materials keeping him away for sometimes years at a time. Their marriage is more a formality than a reality, but it affords her an allowance which brings her to Alpennia. Serafina is a foreigner to Alpennia in both tongue and body. While the earlier books deal with gender, class, and sexuality issues, Serafina is the catalyst for issues of race to push to the forefront. We see her exoticized and fetishized, even by those close to her. Malice doesn’t color all of the interactions, but Heather does a beautiful job of portraying the pain of otherness. Serafina’s deepest desire is to fit in, a desire Jeanne calls an unfortunate thing to want. That wanting however, leads her to Luzie.

Luzie Valorin is an aspiring composer as well as music teacher and owner of a boarding house by necessity. She is a lonely widow and mother to two boys who attend a boarding school far away. When Serafina takes lodging at Luzie’s house, Luzie’s compositions hold a power she never imagined. Margerit recognizes the power but is skeptical of what role music might play in theological mysteries. Luzie can’t see the power she has so she is skeptical of them both, but finds herself swept up in Margerit’s circle. Jeanne having launched an aspiring violinist in the previous book is poised to launch Luzie as the first female composer of Operas in Rotenek.

While Serafina has had female lovers in the past, and knows the common thread among Margerit and most of Jeanne’s inner circle, Luzie has not been so initiated. In the early days of Serafina’s lodging they forge a connection, in part because of Luzie’s music and Serafina’s ability to see its magic, but also because they both find themselves alone and increasingly lonely. Everyone will need to come together to fight against the mystical attack being waged against Alpennia. One Margerit has been unknowingly on the trail of since her earliest mystical discoveries. Will the bond shared over music composition transport Luzie and Sarafina into something more, just as shared studies did for Barbara and Mergerit? Will they be able to protect Alpennia from outside forces or will it be another misdirection?

If you are looking for a story to spin out like a spool of yarn and then wrap you up into a knitted scarf, get started on this series. The turns of phrase and quiet moments are where Heather’s immense writing talent soars. We are lucky to be the voyeurs of these amazing women loving women of Alpennia and beyond.

Supporting characters of note:

René LeFevre, the well respected business manager of the Baron, and eventually of Barbara and Margerit, is in a romantic relationship with his male assistant, Iannipirt. He is one of Barbara’s oldest friends and serves as a confidant, accomplice, and much more to both Barbara and Margerit. He stole my heart from the beginning.

Tavit, an armin that arrives on the scene in the later half of The Mystic Marriage expresses thoughts in a few different conversations that we would likely classify as gender dysphoria today. Early 19th Century Trans rep, how rad is that?

Bonus: Check out the free short story, “Three Nights at the Opera”, a prequel to Daughter of Mystery, though I think it is more enjoyable if read afterward.

Susan reviews Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

Heather Rose Jones’ Daughter of Mystery is a fantasy of manners, set in the fictional European country of Alpennia during the early nineteenth century. The focus is on Margerit, who wishes to be a scholar and inherits a Baron’s fortune… And his bodyguard, much to their mutual dismay. Barbara, the bodyguard and a feared duelist, was promised both freedom from the Baron’s service and the truth of her parentage, which she is denied in favour of being bound to Margerit’s service until they are eighteen. Together, the navigate intrigues, Regency-era society, and the titular mysteries.

This book managed to consistently confound my expectations. Every time I thought I knew what I was getting, I turned out to be wrong. I was expecting a Regency romance with minimal physicality and maximum philosophy from the reviews I’d already read, but I somehow managed to miss that this was a fantasy series as well! The focus is also not as much on Margerit achieving her goals as a scholar and her introduction to society as it is on the philosophy and mechanics of what she’s studying, which threw me at first. Daughter of Mystery does not throw aside Margerit’s goal of going to university, which I appreciate, it just didn’t spend more time on it than was required to establish that she found Her People through it, and that they would be working together.

The subject of this work is one of the mysteries of the title: in Alpennia, appealing to the Saints in a specific manner can produce magical effects, known as Mysteries. The way Mysteries are written and discussed has a very academic, technical tone to it, especially as a fair amount of the discussion is how to reconstruct them from conflicting sources, which I quite enjoyed! (If you have ever studied history or philosophy, this tone is probably going to sound familiar to you.) If you decide that this is not for you, however, there is a lot of it and it is quite slow. I have to admit that missed that this was the philosophy that everyone mentioned in reviews the first time around, as I mentally filed it as “the magic system” and made no further demands of it, so it is possible to let it wash over you if that’s what you prefer!

But these are not the only mysteries in the book. There is the mystery of what Baron Savese (Margerit’s benefactor and Barbara’s former… Patron? Owner?) was scheming before his death, as those schemes have repercussions that ripple out and affect both protagonists long after his death; there is the mystery of Barbara and who her family was; and there is attempting to work out which factions are working against Barbara, Margerit, or both. The resolutions to the web of secrets around Barbara was particularly nicely handled, I thought? Daughter of Mystery dug into the the reactions of the reveal, which was particularly satisfying to see because usually those emotions are left unresolved, especially when it is too late for there to be repercussions for the secret-keeper. And it leads to an explicit conflict in how the protagonists view a character, which was excellent to read.

But I’ve not gone into the characters or the romance yet! I adored most of the female characters in this book; Margerit’s guardian has an arc about getting into a relationship as an older woman, and Antuniet is a prickly fellow-scholar who is the protagonist of the second book. (The male characters mainly serve as obstacles and threats, with maybe a few exceptions.) Margerit is passionate about her learning in a way that I enjoyed, and she just discovering that it’s possible to be in love with a woman, which is written in a very sweet way that I enjoyed – if you, like me, enjoy a lot of unspoken desperate longing, hyper-awareness of the other person’s presence, and two people desperately trying to protect each other without letting the other one know, do I have a recommendation for you! But Barbara is my favourite, as a fierce and protective woman trying to steer Margerit safely when Margerit has no concern for the hazards of what she does. The book is also very clear in using Barbara’s in-between position (not quite a servant, not quite a noble, but the one who understands both worlds) as a contrast with Margerit’s status (country nobility and new money, with no understanding of the position she’s been thrown into) to explore class and classism, which I enjoyed. My biggest problem with their relationship is that towards the end, the “unspoken” part of their longing crosses the line into melodrama, in a way that distorts their characterisation somewhat and could have been resolved with literally a five minute conversation.

My biggest problem with this book, honestly, was not the ending though. It was that the pacing is a bit odd. It’s a Regency novel with a philosophical bent, so I was expecting it to be a little slow, but there is a point towards the end where literally all the main characters do is sit around and wait for four months. This was partially to give depth to the romance and aid in the resolution of Barbara’s parentage, but it stuck out to me because that four month timespan has so much activity happening against Margerit and Barbara, but we see none of it. I suppose that’s a problem that shows up earlier in the story; it’s told from a very restricted point of view, the villains move in very different circles to our protagonists, and the schemes tend to have many moving parts behind the scenes, so we only see the results, if that? But it was very puzzling to read.

All of that said: I found this very compelling! I was so invested in the relationship between Barbara and Margerit, and I did manage to hand-sell this book to three people after I read it. If you like fantasy, Regency romances, and/or reading about characters piecing together history, I definitely recommend it.

Caution warning: there is an attempted sexual assault early in the book.

(The copy I read was a review copy from The Lesbrary)

Susan is a library assistant who uses her insider access to keep her shelves and to-read list permanently overflowing. She can usually be found writing for Hugo-nominated media blog Lady Business or bringing the tweets and shouting on twitter.

Abigail reviews Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

daughterofmystery
Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones is a fantasy in the style of a historical romance. Set in a world that is not our own but resembles Europe in medieval times, the book tells the story of Margerit, a young heiress who inherits her godfather’s wealth, mansions — and his armin (a duelist and bodyguard), Barbara.
From the first moment Margerit and Barbara meet, you know they belong together. Their chemistry is sweet and wonderful and unfolds for the reader in an agonizingly teasing way. Their relationship is a slow burn: in this 800+ page book, it is not until a little over a third of the way through that they begin to realize they might have romantic feelings for each other. The tension of a forbidden romance between mistress and servant is only somewhat relieved by their lovely friendship and the adventures they embark on together, helping each other solve their respective mysteries.
Margerit has a magical ability to see miracles at work. The study of miracles is considered heretical by the church, for miracles and saints are meant to remain as mysteries. Barbara supports Margerit’s desire to study the physics behind the spiritual, and acquires forbidden books for her even as she is dealing with her own, more down-to-earth mystery: who her father was and what her name is. On top of these personal concerns, the two women must deal with politics and power struggles among the nobility,in the church and the university, and among Margerit’s family and acquaintances.
Heather Rose Jones writes masterfully. Her style is at the same time beautiful and easy to read, delightful and commanding of attention. The characters are ones which the reader can truly fall in love with and become emotionally invested in their well-being and endeavors. The setting is convincing and natural, a fully-realized world that seems almost familiar, like a fairy tale setting that has been visited before, or a world that was grown rather than invented. The book is long but worth the time it takes to enjoy it.

Anna M reviews Daughter of Mystery by Heather Rose Jones

DaughterOfMystery

Daughter of Mystery is a debut historical fantasy/romance by Heather Rose Jones set in the tiny, fictional European country of Alpennia in the early 19th century.

Baron Saveze of Alpennia has spent his life amassing a prodigious amount of wealth. A capricious man, Saveze has long kept a female duelist in his employ, despite it not being quite “the thing.” Barbara has spent many years serving as the Baron’s personal bodyguard and duelist, but the ailing Baron has–in her eyes–promised her freedom upon his death. Margerit Sovitre is the baron’s goddaughter, though connected only distantly and from a much more humble background. She’s being introduced to society and is expected to make an eligible marriage, but Margerit would much rather be studying philosophy at the university than finding a husband.

Upon the Baron’s death, Margerit suddenly finds herself in possession of a large fortune…and Barbara. Enraged that she’s been denied her freedom–at least until Margerit comes of age–Barbara nonetheless accepts the task of keeping her new employer safe. One person in particular, the new Baron, bears a grudge after inheriting nothing but the title from his uncle. When Margerit decides to pursue her mystical studies in the capital, there are unforeseen threats that even Barbara might find difficult to overcome.

It may sound strange to say that a fabricated country felt well-researched, but it’s clear that Jones did her homework in terms of crafting Alpennia from a combination of historical and fantastical detail. All the subtle pieces, down to the particularity of the names and their pronunciation, felt like they contributed to a vibrant and compelling whole. If you like women with swords, court intrigue, mysticism, interesting female characters, dashes of romance, scholarship, and family secrets, give Daughter of Mystery a try. Especially recommended for fans of Sherwood Smith.

I’m an avid reader of historical romance, particularly Regency and Georgian, and Daughter of Mystery had just the refreshing twist I’ve been looking for. News of a sequel in the works made me very happy indeed. See this post for more about how Jones approached her work.