Subversive by Colleen Cowley

SPFBO Status: Semifinalist 

Medium: ebook (442 pages in print)

Overview (No Spoilers)

Released in September 2020, Subversive is the first book in the Clandestine Magic series by Colleen Cowley. It’s set in Endicott Mills, just outside of Baltimore, in an alternate America where women have minimal opportunities and are just now organizing to fight for the vote. Men on the other hand hold all the power, especially as the ability to wield magic is isolated only to that sex. As such, they’ve manipulated the laws that only wizards can hold key offices, allowing their initiatives to take priority. 

Beatrix Harper’s sister, Lydia is ambitious in a time when women are supposed to fill very specific, limited roles in society. She is one semester away from finishing college and eyeing the position of President in the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic in an upcoming election. That said, Lydia has only achieved these goals due the sacrifices of Beatrix who abandoned all of her loft aspirations to support her sister following their parents’ deaths. 

Beatrix is abruptly pulled from her monotonous routine when the town’s only wizard, Peter Blackwell returns after leaving as a child. Despite her feelings regarding magic and wizards in general, Blackwell presses Beatrix into his service where her life definitely gets more interesting, despite her dragging her feet every inch of the way. But they couldn’t have predicted the repercussions to their actions that connect them in unexpected ways…

I enjoyed how magic still has an element of science to it, like how measurements were important for brewing potions – I can’t say that I’ve used the same Anglo-Saxon weights and measures for my own work though. This story has an early-to-mid 1900’s vibe as reflected in the societal norms and available technology, but parts of it feel like it could be happening in the present day.

This novel takes a heavy turn into the romance genre about halfway through the novel, with a love triangle and dramatic interactions. Since the point of view alternates between Beatrix Harper and her employer Peter Blackwell, the reader is able to see the things left unsaid. The tension between characters was extra juicy, especially considering the prim and proper time period this story is set. Of course there are ridiculous ultimatums and vows that demand an exaggerated eye roll from the reader, but let me tell you it was highly entertaining. 

The characters in Subversive fill predictable roles, but the fast-paced story keeps the reader engaged, especially as new twists and turns appear at every corner. There are new revelations every few chapters that move the story right along. There’s also significant danger at various points within this tale, however none of the characters really feel at risk. 

Overall, with an intriguing magical system and ample tension, Subversive will keep the reader glued throughout despite containing relatively predictable plot twists. 

Additional Insight (Spoilers Abound)

  • The consequences of the initial vows reminded me of Ella Enchanted. Will the Vows between Beatrix and Peter ever be broken? Is the problem that there are three of them, which is ‘magically significant’?
  • Once we learned more about the cause of the late night rendezvouses, the romance aspect of this story soured for me. It’s compulsion, not consensual.
  • Love that it’s called the Pentagram instead of the Pentagon.
  • It was interesting that the magical system used leaves as fuel. Increasingly so when it was revealed that an intelligent life force resulted in increasingly more power collected. Only weapons applications were explored. How could this knowledge be applied to other aspects of this magical realm?
  • If you can’t use magic to harvest leaves, why can you use magic to preserve them? The magical fuel should either be susceptible to magic or not, right?
  • When it comes to a red leaf, what are the limitations of this fuel? How far can one travel? Is there a limit on how many people can be transported at once? How was this fuel made?
  • Magic sets a high bar. Everything has to be just so or it won’t work.” Is this exclusive to men and their brand of magic?
  • I loved that Beatrix dressed as a boy to try out for the wizarding exam when she was a kid.
  • I enjoyed the twist that almost all women eventually could wield magic and that the government would have tried to cover it up to keep women subservient. Peter taught the other women complex magic in an afternoon. If it were that easy wouldn’t there be more breakthroughs where women figure it out. 
  • Magical aptitude manifests later for girls than for boys.” Why? At what age should girls be tested? Does it also manifest later for Beatrix’s type of magic or just men’s?
  • Are all women able to harness magic in the same way as Beatrix or is it specific to her? If Beatrix is “tapping directly into the source”, what is feeding it? Will it ever run out?
  • If women are able to work with a different type of magic that is summoned by requests instead of spellwords, shouldn’t women have always had this power? Do you need to have some amount of magical training to be able to recognize it?
  • Regarding the results of the “Instances of Magical Ability in the Female Population” report, how did the magiocracy keep this news under wraps? What happened to the participants? Did they murder the women?
  • He may smile and joke, but I don’t think you understand how bad wizards are. There’s—there’s just something about being part of the magiocracy that warps these men. What is Ella’s connection to magic? How does she know so much? Why did Ella leave Bethesda and her family? What does the letter from her father say? Was it her father who’d stopped by the Harper residence unannounced (or a wizard connected to Ella’s family)?
  • I found Lydia and Beatrix’s relationship to be very frustrating. I recognize Beatrix is filling the role of a parent, however she constantly took the blame in situations that were outside of her control. For example, when the men were heckling Lydia at the convention.
  • Where is Beatrix’s “illegitimate” uncle now?
  • Please, one gigantic problem at a time. Remember what happened to Margaret Sanger.” What happened to Margaret Sanger?
  • ‘“Runes are”—he grimaced—“extremely frustrating. We don’t really know why they work, you understand, just that they do. Impedes efforts to use them in new ways.”’ So, how do they work?
  • What was Martinelli doing the rest of the book? Did he figure out that Peter had sabotaged the bomb?
  • What is Theo going to do next?
  • The original Wizard Smith visited afterward to tell me off for not calling sooner. I took him to task for trying to kill Lydia. I said I hadn’t signed on for that. He said no one had tried to kill her.” As in, it wasn’t them or they hadn’t intended on her dying from the crane fall? Otherwise, who dropped the crane arm? Surely, they also saw that Beatrix materialized in time to save Lydia.

Vocabulary Builder

Aquiline: curving like an eagle’s beak

Demarcation: something that marks or constitutes a boundary

Emetic: an agent that induces vomiting

Excoriated: to censure scathingly

Haring: to go swiftly

Ineffable: not to be uttered

Licentious: lacking legal or moral restraints 

Mellifluous: having a smooth rich flow

Perdition: utter destruction

Peripatetic: pedestrian, itinerant

Petard: a firework that explodes with a loud report

Quiescent: marked by inactivity or repose; tranquilly at rest

Shaftment: the distance from the tip of the extended thumb across the breadth of the palm used as a measure equivalent to about six inches

Snick: to cut slightly

Subversive: obsolete : a cause of overthrow or destruction

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