The Last Magician meets The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy in this thrilling and atmospheric historical fantasy following a young woman who discovers she has magical powers and is thrust into a battle between witches and wizards.
In 1911 New York City, seventeen-year-old Frances Hallowell spends her days as a seamstress, mourning the mysterious death of her brother months prior. Everything changes when she’s attacked and a man ends up dead at her feet—her scissors in his neck, and she can’t explain how they got there.
Before she can be condemned as a murderess, two cape-wearing nurses arrive to inform her she is deathly ill and ordered to report to Haxahaven Sanitarium. But Frances finds Haxahaven isn’t a sanitarium at all: it’s a school for witches. Within Haxahaven’s glittering walls, Frances finds the sisterhood she craves, but the headmistress warns Frances that magic is dangerous. Frances has no interest in the small, safe magic of her school, and is instead enchanted by Finn, a boy with magic himself who appears in her dreams and tells her he can teach her all she’s been craving to learn, lessons that may bring her closer to discovering what truly happened to her brother.
Frances’s newfound power attracts the attention of the leader of an ancient order who yearns for magical control of Manhattan. And who will stop at nothing to have Frances by his side. Frances must ultimately choose what matters more, justice for her murdered brother and her growing feelings for Finn, or the safety of her city and fellow witches. What price would she pay for power, and what if the truth is more terrible than she ever imagined?
The comparison to The Last Magician is what made me request this book from NetGalley, plus I seem to be on a witch reading binge this summer.
I don’t read a ton of historical fiction, but when I do this seems to be a popular time period for me. After her mother is taken to an insane asylum and her brother is murdered, Frances is on her own in NYC. After she’s attacked by her boss, who somehow winds up dead with her scissors in his neck, Frances learns she possesses magic. She’s taken to Haxahaven Academy, a school for witches disguised as a tuberculosis sanitarium. While she’s thrilled to learn more about her powers and meet more young girls like herself, she’d hoped to do more with her magic. Haxahaven teaches girls how to control their magic – a good thing – but to primarily use it to ease the burden of household chores – not so exciting. Frances isn’t having it, and she wants more. When her brother’s friend Finn reaches out (he’s a dreamwalker), he teaches her more about magic than she’s learned at Haxahaven. After more bodies of young men turn up, Frances is convinced their deaths are connected to her brother’s, and she and Finn find themselves in the midst of a mystery.
While I liked the 1911 setting, it really doesn’t play a large part in this story. Most scenes take place at the school, brotherhood, or in the forest. The magic system is interesting – males and females have different types of powers and abilities with varying degrees of talent. Frances’s popularity level waxed and waned on my scale. She has very little at the beginning of the story, and her situation is dire, but soon after arriving at the school and making new friends she thinks nothing of asking them to take risks for her without considering the consequences for them or herself. Needing to know the identity of the murderer kept me turning the pages, but I’d guessed who was involved pretty early. The last 20% of the book takes an unexpected direction – dark and kinda creepy to say the least – but fans of morally gray characters will probably cheer. Even with the different path, the ending was a whirlwind and felt rushed to me.
This novel has wonderful diversity and representation (especially with Lena and her backstory) and also deals with topics of feminism, racism, and sexual assault (trigger warning). I’m not sure if it’s a standalone, but the ending sure felt like a second book is in the works. It had some highs and lows for me, but if you’re looking for a witchy historical fantasy that leans more on the fantasy than the history, this is a book I’d recommend.
I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher through NetGalley. Opinions expressed in this review are completely my own.