Title: Highfell Grimoires
Author: Langley Hyde
Information on series: Not part of a series
Rating (scale of 1-10): 5 - I wasted too much time trying to pick between 2 and 3 on a 5 point scale
TL;DR: In a steampunk-fantasy world of flying ships and ancient spells, a young man discovers his place in the world (and quite a bit of romance too).
When his parents die deep in debt, Cornelius ‘Neil’ Franklin and his sister Nora find themselves cast upon their uncle’s generosity. For Nora it means an introduction to society as a prelude to being married off; for Neil it means a menial job teaching other orphans at Highfell Hall, a charity school owned by his uncle. Raised to assume a position in the highest strata of society, and recently graduated from the finest of boarding schools, Neil keenly feels his loss in station but begins the book resolved to make a go of his new life.
The world of Highfell Grimoires is entirely fictional, taking place in an invented country, but is functionally Dickensian. Imagining Victorian London as a starting point makes the author’s lack of world-building (for a fantasy novel) easier to handle. Layered on top of this familiar world is a veneer of steampunk and fantasy elements. Emanating from various spots in Hyde’s world is the magical aether, a substance that can be harnessed to power spells or machines. Familiar steam-punk contraptions are powered here not by steam or clock-work, but by spell-infused engines which harness the power of the aether.
While lacking a bit in depth, the world of Highfell Grimoires does have two very interesting aspects. The aether, with help from enchanted turbines, keeps gigantic ships floating in the skies. These aetheria (the plural of aetherium) add a very literal, vertical stratification to the socially stratified society. I thought it was a nice touch that the richest estates and best schools occupy grounds that aren’t just socially out of reach of the lower classes - they literally float high above the poorer sections of town.
The grimoires of the novel’s title are the second unique element Hyde brings to her world. Each family keeps a book of spells passed down through the generations and sealed by a bloodlock, which only opens with a drop of blood from a family member. Spells are written in metallic ink over pages embedded with wire. When traced by a finger in the presence of the aether, a spell is cast. Neil’s interest in spell-casting is largely academic. He enjoys learning the ancient languages they’re written in more than actually performing magic, and unfortunately only two spells are actually cast during the entire novel. The author really misses an opportunity to exploit her inventiveness in creating a cool system of magic.
Highfell is a lower aetherium, and though Neil tries to keep his expectations low, he doesn’t think nearly low enough. His students are unusually smart, but are kept underfed and live in near-squalor. He shares a dingy room with Leofa, a gruff and well-muscled man that identifies himself as the gardener (though there is no garden). The school’s care-takers, the Nobbsnipe family, though they are clothed in the vestments and manners of the upper-classes, are immediately recognizable as one-note villains (to the reader, but not Neil, who is frustratingly slow to catch on to too many things throughout the novel).
As Neil begins to piece together some of the mysteries of Highfell Hall, he also begins to notice just how handsome he finds his roommate Leofa. In fact, readers interested primarily in romance will find much to like in Highfell Grimoires despite its shortcomings elsewhere. Neil, though naïve, is intelligent, pure of heart and endearingly dorky, while Leofa begins gruff and mysterious, and only later reveals unexpected vulnerability. Both of these characters, and their relationship, evolve convincingly and satisfyingly through the novel.
The plot moves quickly, but predictably. Neil usually takes an extra chapter or two to catch onto things that the reader has already guessed. The novel’s resolution is exceptionally clean. Everything is tied up too neatly, and every character, good and bad, seems to get exactly what they deserve. This makes the novel feel as if was written for a younger audience, even though Neil and Leofa’s relationship culminates in scenes too graphic for most YA readers. Hyde’s writing is concise but descriptive. She proves especially adept at describing Neil’s thoughts, and the conflict between his feelings for Leofa and his upbringing in a society that deplores homosexual relationships. Unfortunately, Hyde’s editor did her no favors. Sentences with obviously missing words are commonplace enough to be detrimental to the reading experience.
I chose to read Highfell Grimoires after seeing it listed as a starred review in the fantasy section of Publisher’s Weekly. Perhaps these expectations made me rate the book lower than I should have. Highfell Grimoires might not be an especially good fantasy novel, but it really functions well as a sort of new adult romance in a fantasy/steampunk setting.
Boneshaker (and the rest of the Clockwork Century books) by Cherie Priest: Readers who enjoyed Neal and Leofa as characters will like Priest’s main characters. They tend to be interesting, multifaceted and non-traditional types cast as heroes. Boneshaker’s Briar, a middle-aged widow and single mother with a checkered past, is a good example. The series takes place against the backdrop of the American Civil War in a steampunk universe that has none of Highfell Grimoires’ magic, but does add zombies.
Leviathan (and the rest of the Leviathan trilogy) by Scott Westerfeld: This young adult series throws together two very different teens on the verge of the First World War. Westerfeld’s steampunk world is amazingly deep and original. Fans of Highfell Grimoires may enjoy that much of the action takes place on an airship, and will certainly enjoy the romance (albeit a heterosexual, chaste one) that develops between the main characters.
Other Blind Eye Books: Blind Eye Books, publisher of Highfell Grimoires, apparently specializes in sci-fi and fantasy titles featuring gay and lesbian characters. While I haven’t read any, it seems likely that there are other titles in their catalog that will appeal to fans of Highfell Grimoires.