Newt’s Emerald, by Garth Nix

Cover of Newt's Emerald by Garth Nix. On one side, a drawing of Truthful in gown, spencer and bonnet, carrying a parasol, in a park with a great house in the background. On the other, Truthful in male dress, with a ship and stormy skies in the background.I have read and enjoyed a number of Garth Nix’s books in the past, including the whole Keys to the Kingdom series, so I was delighted to learn that he had written a Regency adventure/romance with magic and a cross-dressing heroine. I pre-ordered it, which I almost never do. I looked forward to it.

And then I read it. I’m not quite sure, as I sit down to write this review, whether it’s more in sorrow or in anger. But I am disappointed. Newt’s Emerald is more or less a venture in self-publishing (the publisher is Nix’s literary agency) and it is an excellent example for other successful authors and literary agencies of How Not to Do It.

You would think that Nix and his agent would have the resources to hire a copy-editor and understand the importance of doing so. If they did hire one, though, they were ripped off. There are sentences like this:

But she admit to admit that she would quite like to see something of the wider world, so to be eighteen and on the very threshold of a triumphal entry (or at least a credible arrival) into the fashionable London ton was both very satisfactory and exciting, though Truthful had to admit to herself that she almost as much frightened as thrilled.

No, I did not make any errors in transcribing that. Duplicated words, missing words, redundancies (you don’t need to specify that the ton is fashionable). Most of the sentences are better than this, certainly, but there are plenty of similar errors. My French hasn’t been used since grad school, but I spotted grammatical errors there, too.

Someone involved in this project might have used Google to discover that the daughter of Viscount Newington is not “Lady Truthful Newington” and that the Marquis and Marchioness of Poole are not addressed as “Lord and Lady Otterbrook” (their family surname) or as “Your Grace.” But no one did.

But Liz, you say, I don’t care about any of that stuff as long as the story is good! All I can say is that it wasn’t engaging enough to make me overlook the errors. A successful divertissement is fluffy fun for readers, but to pull that off takes serious work from the author. I have no way of knowing how much work Nix did on this, of course, but while he can build richly-imaginative, clever worlds, that skill is not in evidence here.

The Regency world is wallpaper thin, constructed of familiar references: Truthful’s male costume includes boots by Hoby and a coat by Weston (check), as well as a moustache ensorcelled with a glamour. She is gorgeous (with red hair, check) but doesn’t know it (check). There are references to Prinny, dampened muslins, and White’s, as well as lots of descriptions of Truthful’s gowns (checkity-check-check, although why is she putting on a bonnet to sit in her own drawing room, or wearing a dress lined with lace?). The phrase “a chit hardly out of the schoolroom” is used, as is “made a mull of it,” Truthful is not allowed to waltz yet, and the hero feels he has compromised Truthful, though how he could do so while tied up with her in a brandy barrel, I don’t know (ding-ding-ding, flashing lights, jackpot!). I don’t mind those references in a pastiche/homage, but it felt cut-and-paste, not fully imagined.

The fantasy world-building was even thinner. I never got a sense of what the magical Newington Emerald (which is stolen at the start of the story) could really do, so what was at stake in the search for it? Worse, I didn’t have any sense of how magic worked in this world, or how many people had powers. There were some clever moments, like the brooms to sweep away an evil spell, required by law in every household, but they didn’t add up to a coherent system.

I didn’t ever know the extent of Truthful’s (or the hero’s) own powers, or how much she herself understood them, or what kind of magical training she had. Without that, her character felt underdeveloped: any references to her interior life were dealt with vaguely and briskly: “Truthful smiled for a moment, and almost started to laugh, before she suddenly stopped and scowled instead.” Her father is ill, but she rarely thinks about him and though she’s supposedly worried, it doesn’t feel real. I knew she was supposed to be in love, but that didn’t feel real either (also, the romance is utterly formulaic. I could predict every moment). I don’t necessarily expect characters in a book of this kind to grow and change, but I do expect them to be characterized. Since they mostly felt like cardboard, I couldn’t care about them, again making the adventure plot low stakes.

I did enjoy the last big showdown scene, a cinematic one at a masquerade ball and then the beach at Brighton, and felt somewhat warmer towards the book at the end. But really, that was just a reminder of what it could have been, should have been, and wasn’t.

It appears I am something of an outlier in my opinion of this book, but I don’t think it deserves 5-star comparisons to Georgette Heyer, who is never guilty of the sins enumerated above, or of a lack of wit. It reminded me more of some of the thin, 2.5-star traditional Regencies I have read: parts were rather fun, but the characters were cardboard, the world tissue-thin, and the whole thing flat and predictable. I’d be angry if I thought Newt’s Emerald were a cynical exercise, but I think the affection Nix expresses in his author’s note for Austen, Heyer and O’Brian is genuine, so I’m just sad because I think he could have done better than this.

Luckily, I picked up all three of Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Regency magic books when they were on sale last week. That’s fantasy-Regency divertissement done right.

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3 Responses to Newt’s Emerald, by Garth Nix

  1. merriank says:

    Bummer; I liked the Sabriel books a lot and was looking forward to this. Given that he can write fantasy with great world building it feels like an undercurrent of not wanting to get the romance genre cooties means that actual research and reading into the genre didn’t happen. I note his Austen, Heyer, O’Brian references in support of this because who is the audience for this sort of book but YA and romance genre readers? Given who the audience for the book is it also disrespects the knowledge and intelligence we bring to our reading. While romance genre readers would acknowledge the power of his pantheon the way he lists them doesn’t connect him to this audience, also Heyer and O’Brian especially did massive research in their world building so it feels like he is pulling a cloak over himself.

  2. merriank says:

    Also there is a lesser known Caroline Stevermer book “When The King Comes Home”. It is a renaissance fantasy stand alone in The College of Magics world about what happens when that belief that things will be better when the King comes home/come the day, comes home to roost. It is also about art (the heroine is a proto-Benvenuto Cellini) and there are sort of two halves to the book that don’t quite mesh but overall that doesn’t matter because the theme I think is reflectiveness and choosing to know. It’s a book I desperately want to give a B too for the sum of it but is really a C+ to B-

  3. SonomaLass says:

    Sigh. I was hoping it was just me — put it down after a few pages, figuring I’d try again later. I also pre-ordered, because the Abhorsen books were so unique and well-written. I was hoping for something along the lines of Mary Robinette Kowal’s magic Regency books.

    I’m also sad that I wasn’t checking the “deals” posts at DA or SBTB last week; I would have gotten the Wrede books, having enjoyed College of Magicks recently.

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