Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore
Earlier this year, Magic Under Glass caused a controversy; the first cover Bloomsbury put on the book had a white girl–despite the fact that the heroine is a woman of color. It’s since been fixed, thankfully, as you can see above. I’m always on the look out for fantasy with heroes of color, so when I heard of Magic Under Glass during that controversy, I put it down on the reading list. (It certainly helps that Nimira was the first name for a character in one of my writing projects.)
In Magic Under Glass, Nimira used to be a daughter of privilege when she lived in Tienshar, but when her family’s fortunes suddenly changed, she sailed to Lorinar to make her fortune as a trouser girl. But trouser girls are out of fashion, and Nimira sings the music of her country each night to an indifferent audience. One night, however, a gentleman, a Mr. Hollin Parry, approaches her with an offer; he wants to hire her as accompaniment to a music-playing automaton that’s come into his possession. Nimira leaps at the chance, but soon makes a horrifying discovery; there’s a trapped soul inside the automaton. Determined to free it, Nimira has no idea she’ll change the fate of the entire magical world.
There’s a lot that Magic Under Glass deals with that makes me happy; racism, classism, sexism, foreignness, and othering. (…you know what I mean.) Fantasy, which can be overwhelming white, tends to avoid these issues or ascribe them to fantastical races. Magic Under Glass does have a fantastical race in the fairies, but I think the next book in the series is going to contrast and compare what Nimira experiences against what a fairy experiences. (And is it wrong to be so happy that they’re just ‘fairies’, not ‘fey’ or ‘fae’? Because I am.) All these things are actually addressed; at one point, Nimira tells Hollin that his word will always be taken over hers because of who she is–foreign, a woman, and lower-class. The women we encounter in Magic Under Glass are powerful and distinct, even the bad ones. It passes the Bechdel test easily. I’m thrilled to the bone to see such things addressed not only in fantasy, but in young adult fantasy at that. While the magic system is vague, it offers some startling moments of horror (Nimira discovers the golden statues of tigers on Hollin’s estates are alchemically transformed tigers) and the bureaucracy of “good” magic fits in well with the Victorian-inspired setting.
Magic Under Glass is definitely a young adult novel, with the same straightforward prose and addicting readability common to the genre. Topping out at two hundred and twenty five pages, I managed to whip through in a day between classes and appointments. While I’d hardly call it suspenseful, the intrigue is arresting, and you want to know exactly how everything will end up. It’s even a projected series, with one of the most shameless sequel hooks I’ve encountered all year, and I read Luck in the Shadows this year. But it’s also a bit light–the pacing is almost startlingly fast, the events of the novel apparently taking place within a few days or weeks at the most. In order for everything to work, it feels a bit overly dramatic, but then, it does draw a lot of inspiration from Gothic novels and Jane Eyre. (For my feelings on Jane Eyre, please refer to Dudewatchin’ with the Brontës.)
As our heroine, Nimira is rendered very believably; she’s determined to make her way in this foreign country as there’s nothing back home for her since the death of her mother, but she’s still a young woman often in over her head. I quite enjoyed her relationship with her mother, and how it continued to affect her–there’s a moment where Nimira concludes that what she’s been put on this earth to do is free this poor soul, based on her mother’s teachings. There’s a quiet menace to the bureaucrats, who count Hollin among their numbers, and a stark power in one of the female characters we meet halfway through the novel. But the lightness I often find in this genre occasionally trips up the characterization. Once the poor soul is freed, he’s too chipper and well-adjusted for someone having just survived decades of torment. What particularly struck me was the handling of Hollin. Halfway through the novel, we discover Hollin has done something awful to another character; once it’s revealed Hollin’s hand was forced, however, everyone is apparently fine with it, including the victim! It really disappointed me that it was glossed over in order to make Hollin a sympathetic character, instead of dealing with the challenge of making a character who has done bad or weak things sympathetic. I would hope that a book that deals with the various social issues that Magic Under Glass does would be able to deal with that.
Bottom line: Rare for young adult and rarer still for fantasy, Magic Under Glass deals with sexism, racism, classism, foreignness, and othering through its heroine, Nimira, a determined girl from the East trying to save a trapped soul in Victorian-inspired Lorinar. Dangerously readable, Magic Under Glass occasionally trips up with its startling fast pace and characterizations that occasionally gloss over the bad in people, but is overall a good read for young adult fans and fantasy fans alike.
I rented this book from the public library.