ursula: (Default)
[personal profile] ursula
The tagline for The Twelfth Enchantment is "Jane Austen with magic". Most writers who combine Jane Austen and magic do so because they like Regency romance and fantasy; David Liss usually writes noir-ish detective novels with historical settings, so his take on the premise is non-standard. (I note that many of the Amazon reviews of Twelfth Enchantment boil down to "I'm a big fan of David Liss, but this book has magic and girl cooties, so I don't like it.")

I personally like historical fantasy, but am a bit suspicious of direct Jane Austen tributes. Austen had both an incredible knack for characterization and an intense moral sense, and it's hard for a modern imitator to match either one of those traits, let alone both. Liss's heroine, Lucy, at least notices when she is engaged in ripping giant holes in her reputation about half the time, for which I give her & her creator credit.

Several of the major characters in The Twelfth Enchantment are lifted directly from Jane Austen-- the villain is Lady Catherine de Bourgh by another name, for instance-- and several others are well-known historical figures. Liss's own approach to characterization is more in the mystery tradition, where everyone has a secret motive and might suddenly turn out to have been evil (or good) all along. Lucy spends a lot of time changing her mind about whom to trust and rushing from place to place.

To my mind, The Twelfth Enchantment's closest literary cousins are not Austen at all, but rather Charlotte Brontë's Shirley, with its themes of industrial unrest and Romanticism, together with Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. The magic in The Twelfth Enchantment, like the magic in Jonathan Strange is a mix of British fairy legends and alchemical lore. Twelfth Enchantment has a genuinely spooky sequence involving a changeling baby, a hilarious bit with a possessed tortoise, and some interesting musings on the ethics of charms. Although the problem is not as carefully worked through as in Jonathan Strange, I think Twelfth Enchantment is making a similar argument about intelligent men who screw things up because their prejudices prevent them from communicating with other people.
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