Is Heather Rose Jones' Daughter of Mystery a lesbian romance? A work of historical fiction? A fantasy? An adventure story? A tale of court intrigue? After finishing the book earlier today, I'm not quite sure what genre to place it in. What I am certain, though, is that I closed the book with a distinct sense of feminist satisfaction.
Set in a Ruritania-like kingdom in the second decade of the 19th century, Daughter of Mystery is told through alternating third-person pov chapters of its two protagonists. Twenty-year-old Margerit Sovitre never imagined her sophisticated, wealthy, and distant godfather, Baron Saveze, would leave her much of anything after his death. But to her shock, his will proclaims Margerit heir to all his properties, holdings, goods, and monies excepting those linked to the title. Margerit's inheritance earns her not only the enmity of the new baron, who believes her new fortune rightly his own, but also the grudging protection of the old baron's armin, or bodyguard, a young woman known only by the name of Barbara.
Purchased as a young child by the baron, Barbara knows little of her own parentage. What she does know is that the baron arranged for her to trained as an armin despite her gender, and that her patron promised her she'd be a free woman after his death. To be listed as one of the "possessions" given to his new heir drives Barbara nearly mad. Margerit is equally appalled, and offers to free Barbara from her servitude. But the terms of the baron's will, as well as the refusal of Margerit's guardian uncle to allow her to give away any of her inheritance, tie the two young women together until both come of age.
|Now just imagine one of those duelists as a woman...|
Thus unfolds a wary dance of power and attraction between the two young women, one highly skilled in martial arts but without any financial or social power of her own; the other exploring her very real but still constrained financial power, but owing her safety to armin. Barbara and Margerit's slow-developing relationship takes place against the backdrop of court intrigue: the fictional country of Alpennia (situated, like Anthony Hope's Ruritania, in the midst of existing European countries without displacing any of them), like the elder Baron Saveze, is also in search of its next heir. Will the ruling Counsel declare the prince's underaged son, child of his second (and French) wife, the heir apparent? Or will his grandson, child of his eldest daughter by his first wife, but raised in Austria, be given the crown?
Margerit, enthralled by the chance to continue her academic studies at university, cares as much about state politics as she does about finding a potential mate, her purported reason for traveling to Rotenek, Alpennia's capital city. But Barbara, accustomed to the intrigues of the court from her years serving the baron, knows how dangerous it is to ignore the hidden messages behind seemingly kindly advances. And with the new Baron Saveze as deeply committed to helping the young princess and her son as he is to his plan for revenging himself against both Margerit and Barbara, can either young woman afford to turn her back on the duties of society, even if both would prefer a quiet life of scholarship?
Daughter of Mystery is decidedly short on sexy times. But it contains myriad other pleasures. Unsurprisingly, given the author's PhD. in Linguistics, the language used for the names, places, and ranks of Alpennia feels strikingly realistic, a compelling mixture of sounds that evoke French, Swiss, and Italian, with hints of German and Slovak: Margerit, Nikule, Giseltrut; Rotenek, Chalanz, Turinz; Maisetra, Mefro, Mesner. Even though I knew that the book was a work of fiction, its language sounded so right that I found myself wondering many times if it had been set in an actual European country that had somehow slipped my mind.
The English language used to relate the story of two Alpennian women is just as compelling as its invented one. After reading just the book's second paragraph, I knew I was in the hands of a gifted wordsmith:
If the baron were less rich or less powerful, he would have been called an Eccentric, but Alpennian society didn't use that word of a man like the baron. As he was the only person sitting to dinner, and as it was neither one of his eccentricities to explain his plans to the lower servants nor to presume such exalted rank as to speak in the royal plural, the target of this remark appeared to be the motionless figure standing precisely one step behind and to the right of his chair. (Kindle Loc 61).
World-building and plotting are also strengths in Jones' writing. Careful readers will pick up on the clues dropped throughout the story about Barbara's parentage, but most will likely be surprised by the way Barbara's antecedents are interwoven with the current-day political wrangling about who will inherit Alpennia's crown. The book's fantasy elements (Alpennia is a land in which Thaumaturgy is not just an imaginary skill in a role-playing game, but an actual field of study, one pursued by Margerit and her fellow university students) make complete sense within the world Jones has created.
But what I enjoyed most was the gradual friendship, emotional connection, and at last, openly declared love that grew between experienced but vulnerable Barbara and unworldly but determined Margerit. Some claim that romances with same sex couples do not have to cope with the distressingly unequal power relations common to heterosexual relationships under patriarchy. Jones' story suggests, however, that differing levels of power are always being negotiated between potential romantic partners: social power, economic power, cultural capital, educational attainments and in-born gifts. The ability to come to terms with each other's greater (or lesser) power, even more than ability to fight the baron intent on their harm, is what makes Jones' heroines so utterly appealing, both as feminist role models and as romantic heroines.
Prisoner of Zenda (1922): Movie Morlocks
Grey Thaumaturgy card: Patrick O'Duffy blog
Heather Rose Jones
Bella Books, 2014