Review | Subversive – Colleen Cowley

About the Book

In an America controlled by wizards and 100 years behind on women’s rights, Beatrix Harper counts herself among the resistance—the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic. Then Peter Blackwell, the only wizard her town has ever produced, unexpectedly returns home and presses her into service as his assistant.

Beatrix fears he wants to undermine the League. His real purpose is far more dangerous for them both.

Subversive is the first novel in the Clandestine Magic trilogy, set in a warped 21st century that will appeal to fans of gaslamp fantasy.

Published September 27, 2020
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I randomly nabbed this book off of Kindle Unlimited. It looked different, and I enjoy alternative histories so why not. In the end, I was left largely pleased with the experience of reading it. It wasn’t what I expected, and I left it kind of off-balance because it was just such a large deviation in some respects, from what I’d anticipated. 

Reader, I love being pleasantly surprised.

Subversive tells the story of a woman named Beatrix, who, after her parents died in the last Great Depression, gave up basically everything to raise her younger sister, who is now a college student. Beatrix herself works in a local general store to make ends meet, and is involved in the League for the Prohibition of Magic. Into this mix arrives Peter Blackwell, an omnimancer who comes from Washington itself to help the people in this small town with potions and the like. 

Soon, it becomes clear that Peter is not exactly what he seems, and neither is Beatrix. The book itself follows their journey. Slowly, Peter’s true motivations are revealed, and just as carefully, so is Beatrix’s latent potential. 

I will say, a lot of this book focuses on relationships, both between characters, with family members, amongst the community and the like. Beatrix and Peter play really well off each other. Peter grew up with Beatrix before life happened and he moved away to do other things. These two characters have a shared history, but they are also very different people now, and while they get to know each other, in a lot of respects they are getting to know themselves as well, and I really enjoyed that dynamic. The author did an excellent job playing them off each other. 

The magic system was unlike any I have ever seen used before, which was a delight. Leaves are collected from trees, and are, basically, the fuel required to cast magic. From a leaf, a person could create a pen, and parchment to write upon, or any number of other things (though herbs, potions, incantations and the like are used as well). One of the most important social elements of this book is also reliant upon this magic system. You see, sometime in this alternative history, magic was not only discovered, but it was has been understood that only males can use it. 

So, we are dropped into this interesting alternative United States where males are given priority over females for many things, not just magic, but in this version of America, women’s rights are not a thing that exists. The standards of the time are very similar to the 1920s. For example, there is one point near the start of the book, after Beatrix has been strongarmed into being Peter’s assistant, where Peter gets harangued by one of the local busybodies about, basically, “What are people going to think about Beatrix with you alone in that big house and no chaperone?” 

Interestingly, this book is set roughly in our same day and age, but with this 1920s feel to things (think prohibition), so readers get an interesting mix of modern and historical. Cars are relatively modern, but instead of computers, people are still using typewriters and etc. It created a world I didn’t expect, and I both felt very excited about this unique blend of elements. Though, I have to admit, this is probably my biggest drawback to the novel as a whole. 

In some ways, I felt like this worldbuilding was supposed to be a bit more profound than it actually ended up being. Ultimately, I felt like this mix of elements muddied the waters more than it clarified them. I think it would have worked better if the entire book had just been set in the 1920s or somewhere around there (just pick a time period), because so many of the elements were true to that period, to the point they overwhelmed the modern details and I had to reread passages to pick the modern details up.

It took me a few rereads at the start of the book, for example, to understand cars were fairly modern. For another example, there were mentions of not wanting books about magic to fall into the hands of Germans and Japanese, at one point, and that’s something that’s very early to mid 1900s as well. When I really realized the book was set in the 2000s, I honestly was so surprised I had to re-read that a few times just to let that soak in. So it’s an interesting mix of modern and historical, but ultimately the historical overwhelmed the modern and I think it could have been a lot more meaningful and real if all the elements had been streamlined a bit. 

However, aside from that one drawback, I thought the book itself was a true delight to read. It wasn’t one that makes you work too hard to understand it. The author did an amazing job at weaving together elements of the plot, the characters, and the world so revelations came at the proper time. There were few infodumps, and it was easy to follow what was going on. If some plot points were predictable (I could smell the romance thread a mile away, for example) it was easy to forgive. Not everything needs to be a huge surprise to be enjoyable. This book is the kind of thing you’ll want to pick up when you need to just relax, and detach from the world. 

The writing was likewise well done. Never over-the-top, or purple, but just descriptive enough to bring scenes to life, and make the evolution of characters and situations really matter. I enjoyed, in fact, the way Cowley managed to make her story come to blazing life, without overwhelming any of the elements of it with overdone prose. Every word, every sentence, was carefully chosen for maximum impact.

Subversive is the start to a new series, and I fully intend on continuing on with it. Was it a perfect book? No, but it was extremely enjoyable, and a true gem. An absolutely enchanting marriage of Gaslamp fantasy and alternative history. I cannot wait to see where the next book takes me. 

4/5 stars

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