Do you like your heroines feisty, passionate, clever, strong-willed, a little flawed, and more than a little impatient of convention?
Do you like your history alternate, with a women-only government named after Boudicca because she threw out the Romans and went on to rule?
Do you like your fantasy magical, and featuring both elves and fey?
If you answered yes, then you need to be reading Stephanie Burgis’ Harwood Spellbook series. Thornbound, the second book (technically the third as Burgis has published a prequel novella Spellswept), is out in late February but I was fortunate enough to get hold of an ARC.
Cassandra Harwood, only 5 weeks married and yet to have a ‘wedding night’ with her brand new husband, Wrexham, thanks to the machinations of her opponents, is about to open Thornfell, her magic school for young women – to the horror of both the women of the Boudiccate (the governing body of Angland) and the magicians of the Great Library for in Angland (similar to Regency England) because only men do magic and only women are politicians. And if the first is overturned by Cassandra’s school, then the second could be overturned by men who want to rule. (In Angland men are considered ‘too emotional’ to be politicians, which I confess to finding highly amusing!)
Cassandra had already turned the idea that women can’t do magic on its head in Snowspelled, the previous book in this series, by gaining admittance, despite considerable opposition, to study magic at the Great Library. After seemingly destroying her own magic by trying to cast a spell that was too large and complicated for her to work alone, she’s now turning her formidable energies and talents to teaching other young women of Angland how to do magic.
But the Boudiccate is not going to accept this easily so they send four inspectors – three women from the Boudiccate and a magical officer (the supervisor of her own husband no less) – to carry out an inspection of the school and her curriculum.
Unfortunately for Cassandra, someone has entered into a blood pact with a fey living in the woods that border Thornfell’s grounds, and the fey begins sending tendrils of thorn-filled vines towards the house from the wood – vines which are perfectly capable of tearing down a building, or even stealing a person from inside the house.
What follows is a tense, tightly-written, engaging, and utterly gripping narrative featuring a race against time wherein Cassandra must figure out how to stop the fey from destroying her school and keep her brand-new students safe, yet she is one magician alone: her husband isn’t around because his supervisor, Lionel Westgate, suspects Wrexham will offer to teach at Cassandra’s school – which Westgate considers would be throwing away his career prospects since the magicians of the Great Library have decreed that any magician who teaches at Thornfell will be struck off their list of alumni. But Cassandra, as she is reminded, is not as alone as she thinks she is – and it’s just possible that she can save her school, her students, and her husband, after all.
Thornbound is as much thriller as it is fantasy or romance, and it should not be missed if you’re looking for an exciting and engaging read, or if you’re looking for a series featuring capable young women who are ready to overturn centuries of tradition, while supporting both each other and their peers. The sense of sisterhood between Cassandra and her older sister-in-law, Amy, is something I particularly value in the Harwood Spellbook series.