REVIEW: Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale
This is book nine in my Laura Kinsale reread tour, which started back in 2016. It was Kinsale’s second published book, and it’s a weird one, featuring Irish fairies and mindreading and a plot that I hoped would make more sense in the end than it did the first time I read it. (Spoiler alert: it didn’t, but I liked the book anyway.)
Roderica “Roddy” Delamore is 19 when she meets Faelan Savigar, the Earl of Iveragh, age 35, at a horse race. The respective ages of the protagonists quickly reminded me that I was reading a 80s romance, but I will say that most of the time, Faelan treats Roddy as an equal to a degree that makes the age difference less troubling.
(One significant exception: his nickname for her, liberally used, is “little girl.” Which again, the 80s were a different time, but it does tend to emphasize her relative youth in a way that I did not find helpful.)
Anyway, when the two meet, Roddy is disguised as a groom. She gets into a fight with Faelan’s groom trying to protect a horse that Roddy knows is injured. How does she know? Roddy can read the minds of people and animals around her; it’s a “gift” passed on through the women on her father’s side of the family. Roddy, the only daughter of the family, usually lives in semi-seclusion. Knowing what everyone around you is thinking is a burden. Furthermore, while most people obviously don’t know that Roddy’s a mind reader, they often sense her strangeness and shrink from her.
Upon meeting Faelan, Roddy immediately notes that she cannot read his mind – it’s a blank slate to her. From there she quickly hatches a plan: knowing that Faelan is desperate for money, and being an heiress, Roddy will get Faelan to marry her.
It seems like an act of desperation, but Roddy *is* desperate – her whole lonely life stretches out before her; she can’t imagine marrying a man whose every secret thought is open to her. And though she loves her parents and brothers – and they love her – their knowledge of her condition causes discomfort even in the midst of that love. Faelan seems like a gift dropped in Roddy’s lap, one that is almost too good to be true.
Speaking of which: Faelan has a *terrible* reputation. Not just usual historical romance rake “seducing of virgins and married women” terrible – though there’s definitely that – but darker acts. It’s said he murdered his father when he was 10. There are stories of him from his school days butchering small animals. And his debauched behavior has led to a number of deadly duels.
Roddy, perhaps because she *is* so desperate to have a mate with Faelan’s unprecented psychic blankness, and perhaps a bit because she is already attracted to him, pushes ahead with her plan anyway. She gets Faelan, somewhat bemused, to agree to speak to her father. It happens that Roddy’s family and Faelan share a mutual friend, Lord Geoffrey. Geoffrey is a childhood friend of Faelan’s; his only friend, really. Roddy has long been infatuated with handsome, charming Geoffrey, but knows from his thoughts that he sees her as a little sister (unlike every other woman in his vicinity, whom he sees as fodder for seduction). Geoffrey promotes the match with Faelan to Roddy’s skeptical-unto-horrified parents, for reasons of his own.
By my recollection, it wasn’t uncommon back in the old days for romances to only feature the heroine’s POV. In this case, it’s a necessity; the mystery of Faelan’s true character gives the book a lot of its tension. It wouldn’t work to have his perspective. So we find out his thoughts when he shares them, or occasionally when Roddy reads the minds of others who have information that she doesn’t have. It’s through the thoughts of others that she embarrassedly realizes that everyone – Faelan apparently included – assume that she only wants to marry him because she’s pregnant with another man’s baby (Faelan clearly suspects the satyric Geoffrey).
Still, the wedding comes off and Roddy and Faelan depart for London, where she finds a number of unexpected challenges. The sheer amount of people around Roddy, and their thoughts, are hard for her to deal with, and she has to work to screen herself off somewhat. The couple have the first of several big misunderstandings (it’s definitely an 80s romance with the Big Mis plotlines): she thinks he’s still sleeping with his mistress and he believes she wasn’t a virgin on their wedding night. I was glad that these weren’t dragged out too much. One of the things I really liked about Uncertain Magic was that while there’s a lot of sturm und drang, Roddy and Faelan actually get along quite well much of the time, and that made me feel as if they were compatible in spite of the age difference and the other obvious issues with their relationship.
London also brings the introduction of Faelan’s mother, who seems to cover her fear and dislike of her son with a breezy stream of non-stop chatter. Faelan doesn’t seem too fond of *her*, either, but he indulges her antics and mostly ignores the seemingly unintentional insults that she lobs his way. Roddy doesn’t know what to make of her new mother-in-law – her thoughts are as disordered and jumbled as her stream-of-consciousness speech. But as with Geoffrey and others, Roddy gets flashes of thoughts from the dowager countess suggesting that Faelan is dangerous.
The action eventually moves to Ireland, and Iveragh, the tumbled-down estate that is Faelan’s first love. It’s for love of Iveragh and Ireland that Faelan wanted Roddy’s dowry in the first place – to restore the home to its ancestral glory.
In Ireland, there are encounters with government troops, who are sniffing out a conspiracy to move arms through the district, as well as locals distrustful of their returned master. Roddy is introduced to the mysterious Senach, an old and blind servant of Faelan’s who seems to share her gift. She also meets the mysterious Fionn, whose strangeness Roddy seems weirdly incurious about. (In general, as Roddy starts to encounter some of the “magic” of auld Eire, she remains stubbornly skeptical of the oddities she finds. Given that she herself has what some would term a “magical” ability, her blind refusal to accept the supernatural when confronted with it didn’t make a lot of sense to me.)
A Laura Kinsale book wouldn’t be complete without an animal mascot, and Uncertain Magic’s is one of my favorite – the amiable piglet MacLassar.
Before the reread, I probably thought of this as one of the “lesser” Kinsales. It doesn’t have the emotional heft of my favorites, to be sure, but the prose and characterization are really quite fine. The plot is a bit of a mess, with the ending once again making little sense to me. BIG SPOILER AHEAD.
Overall, this was a fun reading experience in spite of the book’s obvious flaws. I’ll give it B+.
This is one of the Laura Kinsale books that I haven’t read. Thanks for your review, Jennie.
I used to love love love this book! I haven’t read it I. A long time but what I loved at the time was that sense of mystery— it heightened the romance. That she couldn’t know what he thought of her. I thought their relationship really did grow slowly and romantically and I liked the fantasy aspect of magic. I didn’t really love the ending but I do think it’s a great imaginative and inventive book.
@Kareni: If you don’t mind my asking, which others have you not read? I can’t imagine not reading all her books, but I am a dyed-in-the-wool fangirl, even if these rereads have revealed some cracks in my devotion.
@Starlight: That’s great to hear! I feel like it’s not highly regarded among Kinsale fans, though on reflection I’m not sure why I think that. Certainly I get that in the current times the age difference is a little squicky, though as I said in the review I feel like that issue is somewhat ameliorated by the relationship between Roddy and Faelan.
I think I almost called it a “gothic”, though I’m not sure it qualifies (I don’t have a great grasp on what makes a book gothic). That’s not a subgenre that always has worked for me but in this case I felt like that tension between everything that Roddy heard (and “heard”) about Faelan, and what she saw with her own eyes, really worked.
@Jennie, here are the other Kinsale books that I have yet to read ~
The Medievals: For My Ladys Heart and Shadowheart
@Kareni: Oh, interesting. I have the two medieval left in my rereads, as well as Lessons in French.
Interesting review. Even at the height of my Kinsale fandom I didn’t care for this book at all. The absence of the hero’s POV made it a lot less engaging. I kept wishing I could know what he was thinking as I was reading it. I remember feeling that compared with the first half of The Shadow and the Star, where we don’t get the adult Samuel’s POV, it was a lot easier to know what Samuel was feeling than it was with Faelan in this book.
Additionally, I felt the faeries were misplaced and the piglet has to be my least favorite Kinsale animal—way too twee for me, even back then, when I generally didn’t mind Kinsale’s tendency toward the twee and over-cute as I do today. I remember that the reason I disliked these two aspects (the faeries and the piglet) was because I felt they trivialized the Irish / English conflict. Coming from an area the world where sectarian conflict still rages, I hated that. Trivializing and cute-ifying the conflict struck a very jarring note and felt disrespectful to severe and deadly battles that took place IRL.
A more minor annoyance was that Faelan called Roddy “Little one.” That is a perennial pet peeve of mine in romances.
All in all, based on my reading of Uncertain Magic 20+ years ago (it’s amazing how well I remember the book since I haven’t read it since then and almost certainly only that one time) this was my least favorite Kinsale of the ones I finished (I skimmed Midsummer Moon and only made it though half of Lessons in French).
@Kareni: For My Lady’s Heart is her best book IMO. I like the original version (with the snippets of Middle English and without the added Allegreto / Cara conversation about Cara’s sister) best. The kindle has the later version with both the original Middle English and the added Cara / Allegreto conversation. It also contains a translated version for readers who would rather not try to figure out the Middle English words from context.
@Jennie: I forgot to mention that my favorite Kinsale animal is Gryngolet, Melanthe’s falcon in For My Lady’s Heart. It said something about Melanthe’d character that she would have a hunting bird and I loved the way Kinsale used it as a metaphor motif about being bounded / recaptured vs. being free.
My second favorite is String of Pearls, the horse from The Dream Hunter. Largely because it isn’t a silly, too-cute animal like the piglet / hedgehog / penguin. That book is offensive, though, so readers should proceed with caution.
@Janine: I definitely have a better tolerance for twee Kinsale touches than you do (I agree the piglet was very twee).
You make a good point about the Irish-English conflict and Kinsale’s unserious take on it. I couldn’t root for the Irish zealots, at least as presented in this story, but Faelan’s casual lack of concern for either side sort of stank of privilege.
@Jennie: I don’t remember the details of the conflict as portrayed in the book but depicting one side as zealots you can’t root for is reductive in in and of itself, and it’s also a political statement (even if an unconscious one).
@Janine, thank you for the information about the different versions of For My Lady’s Heart which I had not known.
@Janine: The Brits were just…the Brits, outsiders and brutal in their methods. The h/h were each dismissive of the Irish patriots, with the heroine thinking they were overly idealistic and the hero just not caring about them – really all he cared about was being left alone to his estate.