Miss Anna Arden is Barren. And how does an unmarried teenager in Victorian England know such a thing? Well, she’s not barren in the reproductive sense. This is much worse. In the world of Blood Rose Rebellion, Barren women can’t do magic, which is the only proof of a noble’s heritage and worthiness. Only those who please the crown and the Circle–the gatekeepers of magical access–have magic, but for Anna, something just didn’t take. And when she ruins her sister’s magical debut, the Circle begins to wonder if she isn’t an active problem, rather than a sad mishap. Frightened, her parents send her to their native Hungary, where she learns more about magic than she ever bargained for.
How she goes about learning these things makes this book flicker between chore and delight. The underlying ideas are good, setting up a universe of diverse powers and sinister agendas, but Rosalyn Eves doesn’t quite shore up that potential with enough detail (and perhaps insufficient research, although her afterword does imply otherwise). Anna herself is a mediocre researcher, trying to learn magic but not trying to find out more about the mysterious creatures that may be figments of her imagination or that may be terribly real. Her situation excuses some of it–there aren’t that many books in a backwater estate, especially for ladies of quality–but not all of it. And we the readers suffer for it. Hungarian myths are not as familiar as, say, Greek or Norse myths, and I would have dearly loved any and all details about them. But we get scant color from that rich history, instead focusing on Anna’s very English upbringing.
Her interactions pay homage to Austen and the Brontes, and have a superficial resemblance to Victorian manners. The inflated idea of civility extends to those more powerful than Anna as well. They ask her to join their causes but exert little pressure beyond imposing themselves on her social calendar, their mere presence deemed sufficiently persuasive or threatening. No actual threats are made, even though I am certain that someone as potentially dangerous as Anna would have been far more closely guarded, with or without her consent. The pressure does ramp up toward the end, but clumsily, veering into supervillainy rather than political reality.
That’s the illusion of the Victorians. Our misplaced nostalgia for pretty heroines who follow their hearts erases the reality not only of abuse but of venality. Rosalyn Eves is getting at it when she forces us to look at the knee-jerkprejudice against the serfs and gypsies (Romani) and the injustices of class, but Anna’s world is still mannered. Still so very English, even when we get to Hungary.
The novel really shone when showing us Hungarian culture. The details of its degraded glory, its subjugation to Austria, and its cafe patriots were all quite intriguing. YA and fantasy both have been dying for an influx of new voices, and it is 19th century Hungary and Eastern Europe that provide some much-needed relief from the glut of English steampunk. Anna is meant to be our entrypoint into this unfamiliar world, since she has had a sheltered English upbringing, but her participation is a bit too unbelievable.
The forbidden romance between Anna and the Romani Gabor is intriguing but not scintillating. To be fair, it’s a hard task Eves has set herself, since she must make the romance realistic (and therefore staggered with the racism and classism of the time) but also appealing to modern sensibilities. I was not entirely convinced. The prose did not convince me of any unbearable passion (although Eves was on to something in focusing on the eroticism of small gestures–the touch of a hand without a glove, the exposure of the throat, the indecency of ankles. Intimacy arises as much from the forbidden as from the shared familiar), nor did their shared narrative of exclusion from their cultures particularly resonate. It lacked an emotional depth because, despite her assertions that she was wild, Anna was relatively obedient. She snuck around, but was not openly defiant or curious in the presence of those she was supposedly rebelling against. She did not demand answers; consequently, our curiosity as readers shrivels up and dies after dozens of chapters without explanations.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t action. There’s plenty, but so much of it doesn’t really tell us about Anna or the Hungarian cause. It mostly revolves around Anna’s frustrations–most of which are her own fault–and sentimentality. The full first half of the book is too concerned with making sure we know that Anna is a not-like-the-other-girls kind of gal and doesn’t set up any of the later surprises very well, making them obvious or random.
Still, I was glad to see genuine engagement with Romani culture that neither romanticized nor villainized this ethnic group. Similarly, it was well done to paint the revolutionaries as fractious and imperfect. The realism of their competing ideologies and methods was more pronounced toward the end, really making the last quarter of the book a breathless triumph. It’s unfortunate that Anna had to hesitate her way through the rest of the book to get there, but I still think it’s worth the uneven ride.