“Concerning the Mystic Marriage of the Earth and Sun to Beget Works of Great Virtue and Power…
The title went on for another half page.”
The Mystic Marriage is a historical fantasy taking place in the fictional European principality of Alpennia, beginning in the year 1821. Both a romance and an adventure, its primary plot revolves around Antuniet Chazillen, last daughter of an Alpennian noble family that has been disgraced and all but destroyed. Antuniet’s life is bleak and devoid of most comforts and securities she’d been raised to. She’d been a scholar and her access to continuing her studies is severely restricted so, like many young women in her position, she makes a strained living by tutoring more wealthy students. The only bright spot in her life, if it could be termed such, is her single-minded quest to redeem her family’s reputation through the art of alchemy and her discovery, mostly by chance, of a singular alchemical text.
Impoverished and without allies, and in the possession of something unique and valuable, Antuniet spends the first parts of the book on the run from shadowy enemies. After exhausting all other possibilities, she reluctantly accepts that she must return to her former home, the Alpennian capital of Rotenek. Without having completed her research and accomplished her goals, she’s denied the triumphant reentry she’d banked all her hopes on. Instead she sneaks into the city and tries to live and work in it without drawing the attention of her former peers. But alchemy is an art, and an artist requires patrons. It’s this need for a patron to sponsor her work before it can be presented to the Princess that sets affairs in motion for the romantic plot which rounds out the story.
The Mystic Marriage is the second book in a series, and as such is told in four points of view, rather than the two that are more traditional for a romance. In addition to Antuniet and her romantic interest, Jeanne, we’re introduced to the protagonists of the first book (Daughter of Mystery). Barbara and Margerit each have their own subplot to follow, and Jeanne herself also has a complex character arc. The threads of the plot weave together tightly, and it’s hard to imagine the main plot proceeding without all the different supporting arcs to hold it in place, even if the connection is not always obvious.
There’s a lot going on in this book to unpack, and I think the best way to experience it is just to read the whole thing. Not that being spoiled in advance for certain plot points is likely to ruin the reading experience, the twists and turns of the plot are wonderful and just this side of surprising, but not the book’s only strength. For one thing, Antuniet is an incredibly compelling heroine. It’s hard to find a really satisfying “unlikable” protagonist, especially a female one, but Antuniet hits all my major bullet points. Although she’s competent and remarkably self-sufficient, she nonetheless manages to sabotage her own cause repeatedly, mostly by virtue of her own stubbornness. Her own musings about her past, and especially her relationship with her mother, show that Antuniet always had a hard-edged personality, and being suddenly stranded to a life she was never prepared her didn’t do much to soften her.
I have a particular weakness for heroines who are chilly, calculating and emotionally stone-walled. Antuniet certainly qualifies as all of the above. This makes her romantic arc with Jeanne especially charming. It’s hard at first to understand why the Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, a widowed social butterfly with a mildly scandalous reputation, would take such a keen interest in a discredited alchemist. Antuniet is proud and principled, and not without compassion, and she certainly has a radiantly brilliant mind. But she was not a social person even before her family became pariah, and she has very little patience for the fashion, gossip and other high society pastimes that are Jeanne’s stock in trade. This is a multi-faceted conflict that pays out over and over throughout the book.
There’s a lot more that I could say about The Mystic Marriage, but ultimately the only way to get the full and complex experience is to read it yourself. It’s a great book with a good balance of drama and adventure and I would recommend it to anyone, though some people might find the pacing of the plot a little ponderous. The worldbuilding doesn’t all appear on-page but has clearly been exhaustively researched and painstakingly developed, and the political intrigue is carefully layered. The characters are drawn with clear motivations, especially the antagonists. At no point do people antagonize the heroes for seemingly no reason, and any foolish actions taken by either villain or hero can be traced back to their own essential character flaws.
I’m looking forward to reading the preceding book, Daughter of Mystery, even though in my experience first installments in series are usually a little more wobbly. Margerit and Barbara are both interesting characters, and the sequel reveals just enough of its plot to make me curious. It’s worth noting that both books have dual-meaning titles. Daughter of Mystery is concerned with the mysteries of saints, a form of Christian mysticism that lies just on the edge of Alpennian theological and social consensus, as well as the mystery of the protagonist’s parents and the circumstances of her birth. The Mystic Marriage is similarly complex. It refers directly to the title of the alchemical book that engineers the plot, but also to the metaphorical nature of alchemy itself, as a marriage of the physical and spiritual. Of course it can also be applied to Antuniet and Jeanne’s romance, especially in the sense that their bond is formed over the shared work of alchemy.
Altogether the book is stuffed with mysticism, history, political intrigue, romance and character growth. It’s a rich and dense reading experience, different to any other book I can recall recently reading. I’ve heard it called “Jane Austen with lesbians” but that strikes me as misleading. Jane Austen, after all, wrote lowkey domestic romances contemporary to her time. Alpennia has more the feel of a classic adventure novel, although none of the characters but Barbara are particularly apt to physical confrontation and the main action of the novel is mental. It’s still a romance, and still guarantees a happy end, though the twists and turns on the way to that end changes its shape dramatically from where it began. An unusual but satisfying ending.
Heather Rose Jones’ Alpennia series consists of: Daughter of Mystery, The Mystic Marriage, and Mother of Souls.
Crossposted to Dreamwidth.