Heart of Light, the first installment in Sarah A. Hoyt’s Magical British Empire series, took me somewhat by surprise. I say somewhat by surprise because, having read the back cover blurb and admired the cover art, I was half-expecting to love it.
I totally loved it.
Not unreserved love, mind you, but it was what I hoped for and more, and if, in places, I found a small quibble with pacing or characterization, by the end of the book all such concerns had been quite forgotten.
Set in a magical Victorian British Empire that never was, this unique fantasy blends adventure, intrigue and romance, as a newlywed couple, Emily and Nigel Oldhall, embark on a dangerous quest to rescue a ruby that will ensure Queen Victoria’s hold on Africa forever.
What struck me most about this book is the growth of the characters. You can practically feel the pages crack as they turn, and each chapter brings about small alterations in the way the characters perceive the world–small cracks in preconceived notions, or unexpected reveals of new information. I was hesitant to like many of the characters, at first, but by the end of the book, the changes they had undergone—which I had seen/experienced with them—made them (and the book itself) grow on me to the point I was quite fond of them. On the whole, the characters were masterfully realized. Brava!
The world was very well suited to my taste: a magical version of the British Empire, with wondrous hotel-ships that sail over the oceans borne up by magic carpets, were-dragons, and all the corruption and intrigue one would expect from a ruthless empire struggling to maintain its power. Particularly engaging are those little refinements necessary in an alternate reality novel, the ways in which the inclusion of magic explains Britain’s power, how power-sticks replace pistols, and the tendency of the nobility to interbreed not just to maintain wealth and land, but to maintain magical power passed down along familial lines.
As for the plot, it was very well thought out, and even included one or two surprises that actually threw me for a loop. I was a bit spoiled for the ending, as I had scanned the back of the next book in the trilogy before reading the first, but it was still wonderfully satisfying. I was particularly taken with the ultimate fates of three of the five main characters, which resolved in unexpected ways that were, in retrospect, utterly satisfying and rather pleasing.
I would recommend this book for anyone with a penchant for steampunk, adventure novels, or alternate world fantasy with a tinge of both the civil and the savage.
I cannot wait to read the rest of this series!