3.5 stars, rounded up where half stars don't work (that would be Goodreads) simply because I like the cover.
In case you haven't seen other reviews, or started the book yourself, one of Galen Beckett's strong influences for The Magicians and Mrs. Quent is Jane Austen. Right from the first sentence the echoes of Miss Austen are blatant. The three sisters at the heart of the story are reminiscent in a way of the Bennet sisters – although sweet, mild Rose also resonates of Beth March. Then there is introduced Mr. Wyble, who was in another incarnation Mr. Collins.
In case it wasn't obvious, from the back flap: "What if there were a fantastical cause underlying the social constraints and limited choices confronting a heroine in a novel by Jane Austen or Charlotte Brontë? Galen Beckett ... began The Magicians and Mrs. Quent to answer that question ...." I'm not sure he does this. While Ivy, our heroine, thinks the thought now and then through the book that women cannot perform magic, it seems to be contradicted often (without any distinction being made between some kind of male-specific "magic" and female-specific "witchcraft"). Nothing is ever said to give any reason why Ivy "knows" that women can't be wizards. Is it their weak minds? Is it their small hands? Is magic precluded by pregnancy or their unmentionable lunar cycles? Is it literally impossible, or is it simply Not Done? It's never clear, to me at least – and I would think it would be something to be made clear in context. It helps that this is the first of at least three books, but I expected the beginning of a clue.
From the strong scent of Pride and Prejudice in the first section, the book proceeds to a heavy flavor of Jane Eyre in the second. When it becomes obvious that money is even shorter than she thought (shades of Sense and Sensibility), Ivy goes as governess to two small wards of a taciturn, often absent man in a big, lonely, sparsely staffed house … Yes, of course Mr. Quent = Mr. Rochester – which is a mild surprise, this introduction of a new Hero Prototype, considering that there was something of a Darcy equivalent (Rafferdy) in the first section, even though he turned out to be quite unsuitable to be the hero. (He and Garritt were each a bit Darcy and a bit Bingley; they pooled the characteristics and redistributed them in a configuration different from Austen's gentlemen. And Rafferdy got all the money.) I had never thought much about Adèle of Jane Eyre before, but both she and the children in this book serve little purpose except to bring their governess to the appointed place, to afterward point up aspects of the atmosphere and said governess as required – and then they vanish. Without recourse to the book I don't recall exactly what happened to Adèle at the end of Jane Eyre, and I wonder whether the children Ivy watched over will return in the sequels.
Layered over Jane Eyre is something more gothic. Having recently experienced The Turn of the Screw through Craftlit, I now know that's what it was – a truckload of it, in fact, lifted almost bodily from that book to this. In place of the two ghosts, though, there is one plus something else: the trees are dangerous and to be avoided, though no one explains why till it's almost too late. (Which seems so strange; Ivy is Not From Around Here, so I would think someone would take the clue that she has no idea about the trees and speak up before she did something stupid.)
About a third of the way through, the book undergoes a drastic change in format and scope as the point of view switches: from multiple third-person points of view following, for the most part, three characters about – two of whom are always out and about and doing, to adhering to Ivy for a single first-person epistolary viewpoint, restrained to a large house and, occasionally, a small village. (It switches back again for the third part.) For such extreme changes, the transitions were fairly smooth. It is rare in my experience for two main (POV) characters to disappear as Rafferdy and Garritt did (the only comparison I can think of being LotR after the Breaking of the Fellowship), and it was frustrating for their storylines to be abruptly and unexpectedly lopped off – but there were enough and interesting enough events in the middle, and enough information provided for some of the many mysteries layering the book, that my interest was held.
Something which bothered me throughout the book was the wild variability of "lumenals" and "umbrals", this world's Latinate substitutes for "days" and "nights" (though the word "day" was sometimes used as well). It didn't bother me nearly as much as some reviewers, from what I've seen; I saw one review whose writer was a bit incensed about the complete disregard of all laws of physics. Honestly, that didn't trouble me so much, at first; this is a world with magic, so – well, there you go. But as I continued through the book, and the characters proceeded through nights and days which were long and short and middling with no discernible pattern, which they could predict only with an almanac … It became a distraction. How can they plan ahead? Are simple things like making an appointment with a dressmaker or to meet a friend, or less simple things like travel, at all possible without an almanac? What if you can't afford one? The week is not a unit of measure used, but months are – so what exactly constitutes a month? Is it so many "days" (each, I take it, being a lumenal followed by an umbral), or a set number of hours? Why is the world this way? I was going to ask why no one questions it, but if this is the way it has always been they wouldn't, I suppose; even the children might not wonder why today's period of daylight might be a couple of hours and tomorrow's a dozen or more, and then an eight-hour and then a twenty, since that would be all they had ever known. But they have a working knowledge of planet rotation and orbit – Ivy's father's model of the solar system makes that a moot point. So shouldn't some of these vaunted scientists have answers? It is in a way like "women don't do magic" – it is the way things are, and no one asks why, even though it doesn't make much sense.
I liked the book. I liked the sisters; I liked the mystery of Ivy's father's ailment and the house on Durrow Street. I liked the storylines for Rafferdy and Garritt – some of that surprised me, which is always good. I liked the idea of the debt owed to Victorian and Edwardian literature. It was a certain lack in the writing that kept me at arm's length, and then there was this...
The Magicians and Mrs. Quent: Ivy: "Know that I respect him, and admire him, and hold him in the highest esteem; that I love him."
I think it was "esteem" that rang the bell – Sense and Sensibility: “I do not attempt to deny,” said [Elinor], “that I think very highly of him—that I greatly esteem, that I like him.”
I wonder how I would have felt about the book a couple of years ago, before I finally read Jane Eyre and Turn of the Screw and reread Jane Austen. I cannot help but wonder how many quotes and near-quotes there are that I simply don't know my Austen and Bronte well enough to catch. There are times when I enjoy a wink and a nod to an old favorite; I've done it myself in my own writing. But here I think the reason it irritated rather than amused was that throughout the whole book there were so many characters to whom I could point and identify their Austen or Bronte or James counterpart. This was more than a wink and a nod – this was more than pastiche or homage. This became, for me, a detraction from an otherwise enjoyable book.
Hideous printing error (I hope): "I laid in my sleigh bed for a long time before sleep came…" *head-desk* I've grown used to seeing that sort of thing in ebooks, unfortunately; seeing it in ink on paper made me want to yell at someone.