Inverarity (inverarity) wrote,

Book Review: Changeling, by Molly Harper

A YA fantasy that is charming despite being a predictable, derivative assembly of cliches and jejune worldbuilding.


NYLA, 2018, 271 pages

If 14-year-old Cassandra Reed makes it through her first day at Miss Castwell’s Institute for the Magical Instruction of Young Ladies without anyone discovering her secret, maybe, just maybe, she’ll let herself believe that she really does belong at Miss Castwell’s. Except Cassandra Reed’s real name is Sarah Smith and up until now, she lived her whole life in the Warren, serving a magical family, the Winters, as all non-magical “Snipes” are bound by magical Guardian law to do. That is, until one day, Sarah accidentally levitates Mrs. Winter’s favorite vase in the parlor....

But Snipes aren’t supposed to have magical powers...and the existence of a magical Snipe threatens the world order dictated during the Guardians’ Restoration years ago. If she wants to keep her family safe and protect her own skin, Sarah must figure out how to fit into posh Guardian society, master her newfound magical powers, and discover the truth about how an ordinary girl can become magical.

My one-line summary might seem harsh, and really, it's hard to overlook how stupid Changeling is in the way it sets up its neo-Victorian world of well-bred ladies engaged in scheming and witchcraft over tea parties and balls. And it has the same problem with tonal shifts as Harry Potter, but worse, as Harry Potter was always a little bit dark, even book one, but Changeling tries to embrace both the "comedy of manners" theme and the "heroine who's going to Fight the Power" theme in a single volume. So it ends with a very unconvincing message of: "This is a crapsack dystopian world that must be overthrown! And does that cute boy really have feelings for me? I guess me and my besties will find out in the next book!"

Nonetheless, despite all that, despite the fact that this is a cliched pastiche of YA tropes, I still liked it because the story was cute and entertaining, the heroine was likeable and charming, and the writing was decent.

Changeling is set in an alternate universe in which magic is real, and at some point in the past, sorcerers all seized power worldwide, dissolved all the existing governments, and created a global government called the Coven Society. Despite this rather remarkable deviation from our history, Changeling is basically a pre-Industrial English costume drama. The seat of the new worldwide government is in England. (Though not London: for some reason, the new oligarchy abandoned London to move the capital north.) Magical families make up the ruling class, while all non-magicals are known as "Snipes" and live lives of groveling servitude.

This does not make sense. At all. How do sorcerers take over literally the entire world and become a single global government? And why is it all English? There is passing reference to characters and families from other continents, but apparently everyone from Asia, Africa, the Americas, etc., is cool with England being the center of the universe? And they all go along with this mageocracy that more or less enslaves non-mages?

The history is fuzzy — we're told that the Royal Family was summarily evicted from Windsor Castle and now lives in exile in Wales, but not how long ago this was. Some characters, like the main character's father, talk about the sorcerers' takeover like something that happened only a generation or two ago. (Among other things, sorcerers decided that engineering, science, and technology were unnecessary distractions — read, threats.) But there are other references to sorcerers ruling for centuries.

Also notable is the complete absence of religion. Or rather, any mention of Christianity, or Judaism, Islam, or any other religion practiced in the real world. There are lots of mythological references, to Norse and Greek and Egyptian deities (who also appear to be purely mythological in the book), but no one ever talks about God or church. A rather strange omission which I wasn't sure whether was a deliberate choice or just something the author didn't want to deal with, or worse, didn't think of. Even Harry Potter had a passing reference here and there acknowledging that wizards interacted with the real world in which people practiced religion.

If you can suspend your disbelief and accept it as an excuse for a period costume drama with magic, though, Changeling is fun. 14-year-old Sarah, a servant of the powerful Winters family, suddenly discovers that she has magical powers, which is supposed to be impossible for Snipes. Some more contrived and improbable plotting follows in which Mrs. Winters arranges for Sarah to "die" and for Sarah to become a family cousin, "Cassandra Reed," who goes to a magical boarding school for young ladies and has all the expected adventures with social-climbing Mean Girls, adorkable boy love interests, and easy-to-spot villains trying to kill her. The story ends with Sarah/Cassandra on the one hand realizing that her entire society is sick and needs some revolution, and on the other hand looking forward to next year in school, having made friends and acquired a love interest or two.

It's a bit of Harry Potter, a bit of Gallagher Girls or Pretty Little Liars, a bit of Pride and Prejudice — really, Molly Harper rips off just about every YA and chick lit book there is, and wears their corsets. Still, the assembly is entertaining and the characters were quite likeable, and made me actually look forward to the next book, even I suspect the setting will continue to make no sense at all from a worldbuilding or historical perspective.

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