Last year I read Garth Nix’s short story “A Handful of Ashes” in Under My Hat: Tales from the Cauldron edited by Jonathan Strahan and loved it so much I toddled off to see if he’d written anything else set in the world of Ermine College. I was disappointed to find he hadn’t, but saw that he’d written Newt’s Emerald which was supposedly inspired by his love of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances. Well, I mean, that’s three reasons right there to want to read it! So, I wait (im)patiently for a gift-giving period to roll round, which finally does, and I get a charming ex-library hardback copy of it with deckled edges that has a sort of dent in it as if it’s been used to level up a table leg or something. (I like my books to have personality, so second-hand is always more appealing than brand spanking new. And cheaper too I guess, so I get more books for my buck! Ha ha!)
So, Garth Nix inspired by Georgette Heyer + Regency + Magic? = AWESOMESAUCE!
This was marvellous fun. I read it in a day. Then I read it again. (I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to be able to type that after my December reading doldrums!) It has some of my favourite Heyer-ish elements in it: a young woman disguising herself as a man, a feisty elderly relative who’s in on the plan, excellent dialogue (with fabulous historical slang words like bosky, jobberknoll and flummery thrown in), and a satisfying romance that you can see coming a mile off and isn’t made too big a deal of. There’s plenty of adventure and it all ticks along at a nice pace.
Lady Truthful Newington, nicknamed Newt by the cousins with whom she played as a child, is turning eighteen and preparing to enter society. Unfortunately, at her small family birthday party a magical heirloom, the Newington Emerald, which she is to inherit, is stolen. Her father promptly falls ill, and so Truthful turns to her Great Aunt, Lady Ermintrude Badgery (top marks for that name Mr Nix!) for help in tracking it down. There’s no particular mystery to solve, but there are lots of misunderstandings and dashing around getting into compromising positions to entertain the reader. And Nix has worked magic into his version of Regency England very beautifully. I particularly liked Napoleon’s fate here, trapped within the rock of Gibraltar rather than simply being exiled to St Helena, and the law requiring that all houses have brooms of hyssop and rue on hand to dispel evil sorcery. I got the same kick out of reading this that I did out of reading “A Handful of Ashes”, which is exactly what I was hoping for.
I do have to say just a little more about Lady Badgery though because she’s a work of art. Actually, she needs her own book. She spends a lot of time in her bedroom wearing a large fez and reading letters, but when she goes out on the town she wears marvellously out-mode dresses and carries a sword cane. She is a sorceress of the first order and helps Truthful’s disguise along with a little magic and a great deal of knowledge about male dress (hmmm, suspicious). She’s snappy and funny and has some fantastic secrets. You know how sometimes you fall utterly in love with a character even though they may not be the main one in a book? Well, I’m head-over-heels for Lady Badgery – she’s just fab.
Finally, it was my maternal grandmother who first introduced me to Georgette Heyer. She loved historical mysteries and romances, the Temeraire books by Naomi Novik and the nautical stories of Alexander Kent and Patrick O’Brian. She introduced me to Mary Stewart’s Arthurian trilogy, and shared my love of Robin McKinley. We were reading buddies a lot of the time and would both get up early on a Sunday morning and sit at the kitchen table talking about books. In a quieter, less snappy way she was a lot like Lady Badgery. She’d been a Land Girl during the war, had worked hard all her life, was ridiculously generous and, despite all that she had privately been through, she was happy. When I reread Heyer I always think of Nana. And I thought of her while reading this; she would have been delighted by Newt’s Emerald. So when I saw in his afterword that Nix had mentioned Austen, Heyer and Patrick O’Brian were his influences for this book I almost heard Nana’s gleeful chuckle, because I’m now off to investigate this O’Brian chap.