Monday, September 19, 2016

Review: Rag and Bone by KJ Charles

Cover of Rag and Bone, featuring a dark-haired black man and a dirty blonde white man together against a greenish background. They both wear vaguely Victorian dress.
Review copy provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

RAG AND BONE [Amazon | Kobo | Scribd] is the fifth novel set in KJ Charles’s Charm of Magpies world; however, it’s a connected story rather than a sequel to the previous books. You can read it as a standalone, though you may find yourself wishing for a touch more background on the practitioners of London if you take that route.

So far as the series chronology goes, RAG AND BONE takes place after FLIGHT OF MAGPIES and concurrently with JACKDAW. There’s the occasional non-spoilery update on where the justiciars are at with that particular problem, but you can easily read this before that.

The book is a direct sequel to “A Queer Trade,” a novella that originally appeared in the CHARMED AND DANGEROUS anthology and has since been made available as a standalone. While I wouldn’t call the original story optional, I realized the connection so far into RAG AND BONE that I decided I’d do best to read the novella after I’d finished the novel. Waiting didn’t harm my enjoyment one bit and I doubt it'll harm yours.

Background: complete. Let’s talk about the book itself.

Crispin, a young practitioner, is horrified to learn he’s unwittingly spent the last decade training as a warlock and frustrated with how difficult it is to break the habits his evil master taught him. His boyfriend, Ned, is a source of solace from the contempt he faces from London’s less diabolical magicians, but his trips to Ned’s place become considerably less restful when Ned’s neighbour spontaneously combusts. Everything about the man’s death points towards a sinister janus jug, but the justiciar who arrives on the scene can find no trace of magic either in the room or on the jug itself. Unwilling to let his friend's death become a cold case, Ned investigates while Crispin delves into a new approach to magic that could push him towards the answer--if it doesn't take him way from Ned entirely.

Here’s what I love about KJ Charles: she throws you in it right away, but she also gives you everything you need to follow along. Within three pages, even the reader who hasn’t yet encountered Crispin in “A Queer Trade” or the justiciars of London via the earlier Charm of Magpie novels has a pretty clear picture of the protagonist’s personality, the skills he’s meant to be learning, and how very badly that personality and those skills have meshed in the weeks before the story starts. It’s exciting on both a craft level and a story level.

I read the opening scene and said, “This is gonna be a good ‘un.” And I was right.

While you’re likely to see Charles’s books pushed as romance, I’m more inclined to consider RAG AND BONE a mystery wrapped up in a romance featuring magical folk. (Those of you who recall my desire for more fantasy mysteries understand exactly how happy this setup makes me.) The search for the murderer drives the plot until a certain point, when the focus shifts to protagonists' search for a way to neutralize the threat before anyone else gets hurt. Ned follows the trail as well as any amateur detective in fiction, hunting leads and forging on despite the sheer difficulty of getting answers from anyone. When the need arises, he marries his problem-solving skills to Crispin’s magical abilities to generate a solution. It’s a great mix of deduction and magic, and it proves just how good a team they make.

Which brings us to the other side of the equation: the romance. Charles’s romances are very good because she acknowledges there has to be more than physical attraction behind the parties, and because she's willing to really delve into the mechanics. Crispin and Ned are in an established relationship as of the first chapter, so there’s no will-they-or-won’t-they tension. Instead, Charles explores what each partner does to support or challenge the other as they work towards becoming their best selves. They clash sometimes, but they (mostly) work through those conflicts because they care for one another. They each understand, too, that they can’t make their relationship succeed by subsuming themselves in their love. When Crispin gets an opportunity that’ll take him away from London, he recognizes he can’t reject it out of hand just because it would mean being away from Ned for long stretches of time. He can’t be the person Ned deserves if he twists away from himself like that.

Charles uses both the mystery and the romance to tackle issues of prejudice and class. Crispin is a warlock amongst people who strongly disagree with warlockery, and who’ll disdain him even more if they learn he’s gay. Ned is black; by no means a unique thing in London, but still something that makes him a target for the city’s more racist citizens. His job--buying and selling waste paper--puts him in a lower economic class than gently-raised Crispin, too, and he's very well aware of it. And on top of that, he’s had to cut ties with his family because they rejected his queerness. Charles doesn’t delve as deeply into these issues here as she does in JACKDAW, where one of the heroes has just come off a hard labour sentence for sodomy, but she never lets them go unacknowledged, either.

All these elements combine to make RAG AND BONE another strong Charm of Magpies novel. This series is wonderful. You can jump in here, as I said, but I’d recommend sliding back to THE MAGPIE LORD for maximum enjoyability and the opportunity to absolutely wallow in this world.

6 comments:

  1. I heart KJ Charles so much. Like, I enjoy the Society of Gentlemen series, but this series right here is where my heart's truly at. The world has so much creepy shit in it, and I can't get enough.

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    1. Right? All these magical monstrosities and gloriously dark turns.

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  2. I haven't read anything by this author yet, so I'm glad you recommended a starting point. I'm off to explore. A Queer Trade sounds intriguing.

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    1. Ooh, I can't wait to hear what you think of Charles!

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  3. I know I have this book downloaded, but I kinda stalled on Jackdaw.

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    1. I definitely recommend giving it a go. I think I liked JACKDAW a little more, but RAG AND BONE is still charming.

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