The Shattered Court is the first in a new series by Australian author M.J. Scott, and presents a very proto-Britain world where the use of magic is very restricted and controlled, and where our protagonist just happens to be both the most powerful practitioner they’ve ever seen, and also manages to avoid being bound the way every other magic user is. More of a romance novel with some fantasy overtones than it is a fantasy novel with romantic undertones, frequent and fairly intimately described sex scenes make this piece land firmly in the ground of adult fantasy. A bit of an exercise in tropes and mediocrity, which isn’t to say it’s not worth reading, made The Shattered Court a firmly middle-of-the-road series debut.
The royal witches of Anglion have bowed to tradition for centuries. If a woman of royal blood manifests powers, she is immediately bound by rites of marriage. She will serve her lord by practicing the tamer magics of the earth—ensuring good harvests and predicting the weather. Any magic more dangerous is forbidden.
Lady Sophia Kendall, thirty-second in line to the throne, is only days away from finding out if she will be blessed—or perhaps cursed—with magic. When a vicious attack by Anglion’s ancient enemies leaves the kingdom in chaos, Sophia is forced to flee the court. Her protector by happenstance is Lieutenant Cameron Mackenzie, a member of the royal guard, raised all his life to be fiercely loyal to the Crown.
Then Sophia’s powers manifest stronger than she ever imagined they would, and Cameron and she are inextricably linked in the process. As a witch unbound by marriage rites, Sophia is not only a threat to the established order of her country, but is also a weapon for those who seek to destroy it. Faced with old secrets and new truths, she must decide if she will fight for her country or succumb to the delicious temptation of power.
I find this kind of book among the hardest to review. Nothing in it was especially terrible and nothing in it was especially great. I’m actually having a little bit of trouble remembering exactly what happened, and I only read this novel three books ago. Ah well. We’ll see what we can do to educate your choices about whether to pick up this series or not. First off, the magic system. There are basically four kinds of magic: earth, air, water, and blood. Women in Anglion are only allowed to practice earth magic. As part of this, any woman who manifests magical power is bound to the temple and their goddess. This has the effect of basically siphoning off a bunch of her power for temple use. Then she’s swiftly married off as a sought-after trophy because the marriage rites also siphon off a bit of power to the husband, who gets to live a nice long healthy life as a result. This is all well and good in terms of world building, but a few elements of it sort of bug me in my ‘want my magic to make sense logically’ brainparts.
So this land of Anglion is large enough that there are whole linkages of magical portals connecting it, or things would be days and days of fast travel apart. Given the apparent size of the place (especially if we actually assume than Anglion is an alternate reality England) I just refuse to believe that every single woman who manifests magical power is found and bound on the day it happens. Plenty of random serfs would go months if not years without really seeing anybody, let alone anybody from the government. Given that a lot of your poorer types need every person they can to be out working in order to live, they might not be too hasty to give such people up either. The other unlikely thing to me is that your power either appears or doesn’t on your 21st birthday. Now, on this world, it’s certainly possible that unlike earth, one year is exactly as many days as they say it is, but they don’t seem to have super great science in terms of astronomy. If we assume this is a world with leap years (ie: The same rotational thing earth has, and since they have seasons and all that, it seems they do), the average person is going to “turn 21” around 5 days earlier than the calendar would suggest they would. Unless of course, we find out that the whole Goddess-based pantheon is factually true and such a being is in control of the world and makes sure this stuff happens on schedule, but no sign of that was ever given in this volume of the story. It makes a lot more sense on a couple fronts to have tied this to puberty or some other thing that actually happens when it happens.
The whole social structure of the world seems less like it was built for realism (After all, if the women have the serious magical power, and the temple (run by women) is stockpiling a little bit of each woman’s magical power) the fact that this is a super patriarchal society where men rule the household and women are largely property seems less like it would actually happen, and more be a barrier for our independent strong-willed protagonist to rebel against and express her freedom. And again, there’s nothing especially wrong with setting up your world this way, but the way she acts is just straight from a million other stories about women who seem to be the only woman anywhere around them who seems unhappy with the whole ‘I’m going to get married off and that’s that’ state of affairs. She should either be not at all alone in that thought, and with the power the Temple wields, should have not very much trouble implementing that thought, or she shouldn’t have it either. Nothing about her character seems to suggest she’d somehow be the first feminist in the world except for the fact that it seems she is. Of course, for all that she wants her freedom, and finds the idea of being married off horrible, she has no trouble at all hooking up with our beefy, handsome and of course, super duper honourable and perfectly perfect in every way hunky royal guard Cameron.
I don’t generally read romance novels, so I apologise to anybody who does if this is just how these sorts of stories go, and I’m just reading off-genre here by accident, but almost none of the actually interesting plot developments seem to have much impact on anything except to keep giving Sophia and Cameron chances to go have sex while we watch. The kingdom has been attacked by who knows who, killing off huge swaths of the royal family and nobility, to the point where Sophia is now arguably in the top five in line for the throne, she’s managed to come into incredibly strong power, avoided actually being bound in the way every single other woman in her whole country is bound, leaving her very powerful in a time of war. Great stuff. Except so far, basically nothing’s been done with any of those story elements. Instead we get several chapters of honeymoon, some secret makeouts, and a couple very steamy sex scenes. Again, nothing at all wrong with any of that, it’s just not what it seemed like I was signing up for based on the blurb, and the first few chapters. Maybe that’s the traditional setup for a steamy romance novel? I don’t know. But it made me want to start skimming those parts hoping that what seemed to be the actual story would come back to center stage, but nope. It seems like this is going to entirely be the story of Sophia and Cameron with maybe a huge epic magical war between nations happening over there. I could wish for an alternate version of this story with the other plot elements taking centre stage.
Still, Scott is not a bad writer, her prose is engaging, her characters have depth without being propped up by paragraphs of exposition dumps, and the world she’s describing certainly has some promise. But so far I’ve barely seen as much of the world as I want, and have seen far too much of what her characters have under their clothes. If Sophia and Cameron can get out of each other’s pants long enough to get stuck in the middle of the impending war, I’ll be a lot happier to keep on with the series, though at the time of this writing, I don’t believe there’s even been a title revealed for the next book in the series, let alone a release date.
Dan received an Advance Review Copy of this book from Roc via NetGalley