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REVIEW: The Marriage Spell by Mary Jo Putney

Dear Ms. Putney,

Nestled between Susan Elizabeth Phillips' Ain't She Sweet and Amanda Quick's Scandal on my bookshelf are ten of your novels and your novella collection Christmas Revels. It's been over sixteen years since the first of these paper-bound inhabitants settled into my library, and they have not been allowed to gather dust.

I'm a finicky and spoiled reader: only one romance author has written a greater number of books that I have kept, and truthfully, I've mostly held on to her books out of nostalgia. They sit there unread, peering at my well-thumbed-through copies of Petals in the Storm and Angel Rogue, Uncommon Vows and The Wild Child, Shattered Rainbows and One Perfect Rose and yellowing with time and envy. To say that your books are dearly beloved is both a bad pun and an understatement.

I begin my open letter this way in the hope that you will understand that my disappointment with your latest book, The Marriage Spell, is partly a function of my great appreciation for your 1990s works. It is not that The Marriage Spell is a bad book; in fact, my opinion is that it's better than average. It is just that I think some of your earlier books are very, very good, while this one is at best pretty good.

The Marriage Spell is set in an alternate Regency era in which some people are gifted with magical abilities. Jack Langdon is one such person, but unfortunately for him, he is also a boy and an aristocrat, and society is not tolerant of aristocratic males with magical abilities. Consequently, Jack is sent to Stonebridge Academy, a horrible school where boys have the magic disciplined out of them. There Jack befriends other boys who form a group and call themselves The Stone Saints (a sure sign of sequels, I'm thinking).

Twenty years later Jack falls off his horse while hunting and sustains serious injuries, including a broken neck. Abigail Barton, a gifted healer who is also a woman of good birth, lives nearby and Jack is brought to her home in the hope that she can save his life. Abby has longed for Jack from afar, but to heal him she will need to lead other wizards in a healing circle, a process which may kill her.

Jack's friends Ashby and Ransom offer the use of their own long-suppressed powers and ask her if there is anything that would make it worth her while to take such a dangerous risk. More to herself than to them, Abby muses that the possibility of marriage to Jack would be worth it, and almost before she knows it, Jack's friends obtain his agreement to marry her if she saves his life.

The healing circle is successful and when Jack regains consciousness he is grateful to be alive but less than thrilled to be engaged to a wizard. Nevertheless, he soon warms to Abby and when she tries to release him from their betrothal he refuses, partly out of a sense of obligation but partly out of a genuine liking for her. And so Abby and Jack marry and set off to face a prejudiced society which will disapprove of their union, Jack's fear of his own magical powers, and a confrontation with someone who is menacing Jack's childhood home.

As usual your writing voice has a period flavor that I enjoy, and your characters are wonderfully practical and self-deprecating. I never fail to feel warmth toward the characters I am supposed to like, and I love that you even make me feel a little pity for the villains. The mixture of history and fantasy is intriguing and since I like marriage of convenience stories, I am thoroughly entertained.

Nonetheless, a few things niggle at me.

The first is that Abby's magical abilities feel a little too conveniently wide-ranging, and using them doesn't take as much of a toll on her as I'd like it too. Yes, she looks tired after wielding her powers, but I don't truly feel her exhaustion when I read about it. This makes it harder for me to buy into the magic.

The second is that male friendships, at which you've traditionally excelled, aren't as developed here as they've been in some of your earlier books. After being introduced early on, Jack's friends Ransom and Lucas fade from the story, and only Ashby remains on the periphery. I am especially disappointed at Lucas' disappearance, because his antipathy to magic could have made his relationship with Jack fascinating once Jack began accepting his own magical powers.

The third, and most disappointing to me, is that many of the emotional conflicts the main characters face turn out to be rooted in enchantments that are easily dispelled.

What made many of your 1990s books so satisfying to me was that the characters had to learn to deal with inconvenient feelings, to shine a light on their own motivations and desires, to cope with loss and melancholy, to reach out to others despite their fears and vulnerabilities. Here they instead shine a light on feelings others magically planted within them, cope with the machinations of wizards or others who employ wizards, and solve their problems largely through casting enchantments of their own.

It's not that I'm unwilling to read about the fantastical (I adore books by Ursula K. Le Guin, Sharon Shinn, Naomi Novik, and C.S. Lewis); it is just that even in the fantasy and paranormal romance genres characters' emotions are far more compelling to me when they are based in real heartaches.

Ah, how I felt Lucien's sorrow over the death of his parents and twin sister in Dancing on the Wind. How I empathized with Michael when he fell in love with the married Catherine in Shattered Rainbows. How I wanted to see Robin consoled when Margot threw him over for Rafe in Petals in the Storm (I still think she made a mistake there, but that's for another letter).

Grief. Betrayal. Unrequited love. I want more of that. In other words, I want more angst. While reading The Marriage Spell I wanted Jack's aversion to Abby's abilities to run deeper, and to be a major obstacle to their happiness. Or for Jack's fear of his own powers to be rooted in something significant, such as knowing of others who let such powers corrupt them. Or for Lucas and Jack to be at odds, and for this to hurt both men.

I had fun reading The Marriage Spell, but its conflicts felt glossed over and too quickly resolved to me, so I give it a C+. It was an entertaining way to pass the time, and I’m not sorry I read it. But it could have been magical.

Sincerely,

Janine

Janine Ballard loves well-paced, character driven novels in historical romance, fantasy, YA, and the occasional outlier genre. Recent examples include novels by Katherine Addison, Meljean Brook, Kristin Cashore, Cecilia Grant, Rachel Hartman, Ann Leckie, Jeannie Lin, Rose Lerner, Courtney Milan, Miranda Neville, and Nalini Singh. Janine also writes fiction. Her critique partners are Sherry Thomas, Meredith Duran and Bettie Sharpe. Her erotic short story, “Kiss of Life,” appears in the Berkley anthology AGONY/ECSTASY under the pen name Lily Daniels. You can email Janine at janineballard at gmail dot com or find her on Twitter @janine_ballard.

3 Comments

  1. seton
    Sep 11, 2006 @ 20:56:33

    It was with STOLEN MAGIC, the third installation in this Mage series that I decided that I wont be reading any more of this series. I think because of the magick element, it enables MJP to be a little sloppy with her storytelling pulling all these deus-ex-machina shite all over the place. Not good.

    It really makes me sad to write this because I have been reading MJP since her Signet Regency days and I would consider her among my Top 3 Favorite Authors alltime.

    [quote]How I wanted to see Robin consoled when Margot threw him over for Rafe in Petals in the Storm (I still think she made a mistake there, but that’s for another letter).[/quote]

    Sing it, Sista! It was bad enough when I read it the first time as THE CONTROVERSIAL COUNTESS. Then MJP got lazy and revised it as part of her Fallen Angel series which was a big ole mistake. Rafe is, by far, the least likable of the Fallen Angels (and I say this as someone who didnt like Michael either)

  2. Rosie
    Sep 11, 2006 @ 21:56:34

    Janine, I’ve picked this up and put it down several times in the bookstore. I’m a fan of Ms. Putney as well, but after the Bride books was reluctant to plunk out the money for this hardcover. I guess I’ll wait for paperback now. Thanks.

  3. Janine
    Sep 12, 2006 @ 00:17:04

    Rosie, I hope you like the book better than I did.

    It was with STOLEN MAGIC, the third installation in this Mage series that I decided that I wont be reading any more of this series.

    Seton, The Marriage Spell is actually the start of a new series for Putney. Stolen Magic was part of her Guardian series, which was about a group of mages (a word that brings Dungeons & Dragons games to my mind) who banded together to protect England from external threats.

    This new series is set during the Regency and is about a group of four male friends who as boys called themselves The Stone Saints. They were sent to a school that taught them not to use their magical abilities and became good friends there. I think the idea was something similar to the Fallen Angels, but with magic.

    I think because of the magick element, it enables MJP to be a little sloppy with her storytelling pulling all these deus-ex-machina shite all over the place. Not good.

    I wouldn’t mind so much if the external conflicts (defeats of villains, for example) were resolved through magic, but I want the relationship issues to be dealt with the way human beings without magical gifts have to deal with them: not through conjuring spells but by taking a hard look at emotional blind spots.

    Putney writes that kind of epiphany better than many other authors in the genre. She’s a master at it, so I’m sorry she didn’t utilize that particular skill to a greater degree in this book. To be honest (and this may not be fair), characters who have to do some emotional growth work are part of what I expect when I pick up a Mary Jo Putney book.

    It really makes me sad to write this because I have been reading MJP since her Signet Regency days and I would consider her among my Top 3 Favorite Authors alltime.

    I share your sadness.

    Sing it, Sista! It was bad enough when I read it the first time as THE CONTROVERSIAL COUNTESS. Then MJP got lazy and revised it as part of her Fallen Angel series which was a big ole mistake. Rafe is, by far, the least likable of the Fallen Angels.

    Rafe grew on me a bit when I reread the book (which I did because I loved Robin). But I agree that he’s the least likable of the Fallen Angels.

    (and I say this as someone who didnt like Michael either)

    Not like Michael! That’s where we part company. Michael is my favorite Fallen Angel of all.

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