TBR Challenge: Snowspelled, by Stephanie Burgis

This month’s TBR Challenge prompt is “We Love Short Shorts,” always a gentle introduction to the Challenge.

I’m pretty sure I had Stephanie Burgis’ novella Snowspelled in my TBR because of Ana’s review. I like fantasy with an alt-Regency setting, and this sounded fun.

And so it was, a good balance of romance and fantasy, with enough background to make some sense of its world but leave me wanting to read more about it.

Clarissa Harwood lives in a world where men do magic and women do politics. Her mother was a leading member of the Boudiccate, the elite circle of women that governs the country. But rather than following in her mother’s footsteps, Clarissa has fought to study magic at the Great Library. While she finally succeeded and was top of her class, Snowspelled opens four months after an event that took her magic (what that is isn’t clear at first, and I don’t want to spoil it). Now Clarissa has been persuaded to attend a house party where the Boudiccate has gathered for a winter solstice ceremony, and where she will encounter her ex-fiancé Wrexham, himself a powerful magician.

Short-form romance always works best for me when the couple has a history, and here I found the romance arc really satisfying. Clarissa has pushed Wrexham away because she dreads his pity, thinks his career will be harmed by what’s happened to her, and no longer feels like his equal. But is she right about that? Can she learn to value herself as someone without magical power? Can she accept a relationship in which she feels vulnerable? Who is she without the identity she fought for for so long? These were all interesting questions and I enjoyed seeing how Clarissa’s changing view of herself led her to re-evaluate her relationships with both Wrexham and her family.

The fantasy world was intriguing too: humans co-exist uneasily with elves and their troll “pets,” and part of what the Boudiccate does is maintain peace with these old adversaries. But not everyone is happy with this state of affairs, and Clarissa stumbles into a plot to destabilize her world. She has only a week to figure out who is responsible or she’s going to be taken by the elves (exactly what that entails isn’t clear, but it won’t be pleasant).

The basics of this world made sense but I found myself frustrated or unsatisfied by the way Burgis explored the gendered roles it was based on. To some extent, I thought it exposed the fundamental injustice of a complementarian view of gender–or more accurately sex. Men and women in this world are equal in theory, but if you don’t have the talent for magic or politics that supposedly belongs to your sex, you don’t have a place. There’s no room, until Clarissa begins to fight for it, for the idea that people might have talents their sex is not “supposed” to (there is a same-sex couple in the story who also start to complicate this idea, but it’s very cis-gender).

What I missed was the idea that maybe men would like to do politics too, and be good at it. Maybe this was Clarissa’s blind spot rather than the narrative’s: for so long she wanted nothing more than to use her magical gifts and didn’t care about politics. But why did it never occur to her–especially since her brother is a historian, not a magician, and thought less of because of that–that some men might want to join the Boudiccate?

In some ways Snowspelled flips traditional gender hierarchies. I loved the dinner scene: when the women leave the table at the end of the meal and the men stay, it’s because the men aren’t allowed to hear the political discussion that goes on over tea. They have to remain in the dining room until a maid comes to tell them it’s safe to join the ladies. But because the story focused so much on Clarissa and magic, I ended up feeling that men and women here weren’t really equal–women demanded to enter the halls of the Great Library, but men weren’t clamouring to take on the dull business of politics.

That’s a lot of complaining about a book I turned to for a fun escape, and which gave me just that. I did really enjoy it. But it also seemed to present itself as a feminist fantasy, and there I found it a bit blinkered. Maybe Clarissa and her world will grow to encompass a fuller vision of equality in future instalments.

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7 Responses to TBR Challenge: Snowspelled, by Stephanie Burgis

  1. Sunita says:

    This does sound kind of fun. Although I’m not sure I can read a romance with a heroine named Clarissa Harwood! I’d keep thinking of the author on Twitter and get confused. 😉

  2. Liz Mc2 says:

    Despite my political nit-picking, I really enjoyed it! I follow Clarissa and read her first book, and that connection didn’t even occur to me. I did think of Richardson’s Clarissa (Harlowe), though. What does that say about me?

  3. Dorine says:

    I’m glad Sunita cleared that name up for me. It was nagging at me, so now I remember I enjoyed that author’s book. LOL I’ve never tried a book like Snowspelled – sounds fun – putting it on my wishlist.

    • Liz Mc2 says:

      My favourite in this vein, from long before my romance-reading days, is Sorcery and Cecelia by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia Wrede. It is epistolary too (I think it started as a game where the authors wrote back and forth) so it ticks several of my reading boxes.

  4. azteclady says:

    Considering how much it engaged you with the world, I would deem this one a success 😀

  5. I’m glad to hear these caveats — I’ve been looking forward to this book, but it’s nice to know going in about ideological lapses that I should expect. I often find it frustrating when authors subvert our world’s gender norms by just flipping them around. Like — in a world where our gender norms don’t apply, wouldn’t they have developed their own unique and specific set of gender norms, even if the dominant gender is women? So yeah. Good to be prepared.

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