Rag and Bone is a mix of Regency, fantasy, and mystery, and while some parts were stronger than others, the two heroes and the rapidly developing plot kept me reading for hours longer than I intended.
Crispin is a struggling magician whose prior tutor/master turned out to be evil, and he has a clandestine but passionate relationship with Ned, who is a waste paper dealer. Ned, who is the gentleman of color on the cover, lives in a small room off to the side of another shop, has very little in the way of possessions, and makes his living buying and selling waste paper. He’s strong, brawny, clever, and methodical. These are all important traits to the story.
Crispin is of a higher class, and is obsessed with trying to educate him in the “correct way” to do magic. His former master had taught him graphomancy using his own blood as ink, writing with a pen whose nib had been fashioned from Crispin’s pinky bone. (Ouch.) Blood magic is extremely dangerous and illegal, and Crispin has been under the tutelage of several magicians through the Justiciars, a sort of governing/enforcement body that manages all the magicians, or tries to, anyway.
Before I get into what I liked about this story, I want to give you a heads up about its location in a larger world, and in a series. This book is part of the Charm of Magpies world, and I haven’t read any of the other books in the series. I’m pretty sure I met some past characters, or maybe future characters, in this book, and their presence didn’t detract from the story for me. There is also a prequel novella to this story, A Queer Trade, which I haven’t read, and I don’t think you need to read it to understand this book. That said, the romance elements might have been more developed or more pronounced in this book if I’d read the prior novella, which details how Ned and Crispin met.
Crispin and Ned spend time together at night, after Crispin’s training is done, and after Ned’s workday has come to an end. At the beginning of the story, their relationship is one of initial attraction with a lot of insecurity on both sides. Crispin admires Ned’s strength, and his understanding and appreciation of himself and of Crispin. Crispin wishes he were as admirable and confident as Ned is, and in every conversation they have, especially the tense ones, Crispin is almost waiting for Ned to wake up and realize that Crispin isn’t nearly half the man Ned is.
Ned, of course, has no idea Crispin is thinking any of this, and feels out of his depth when talking about Crispin’s magical education and the things he’s working on. He likes Crispin a great deal, but knows he doesn’t fit into Crispin’s world.
There are a few scenes in which Crispin is obtuse with regards to Ned’s life, and the lives of Ned’s neighbors, and Ned calls him on his behavior. The characters’ negotiation of their respective class differences influences everything they say and do – they’re both conscious of it, and trying to work around it, but they also suspect that it’ll be the cause of the end of their relationship, a result that neither wants nor is sure how to avoid. Because the story begins at a point beyond their first meeting, and their first hookup, the tension between them is more poignant: they’re at the point where the novelty has worn off, and they’re starting to become more comfortable and thus uncomfortable with each other. Their attraction isn’t enough to smooth over the massive differences in their perspectives.
Crispin is desperate to attain the education that will make him into the “right” kind of magician, and will remove the stain of suspicion that covers him due to his former master’s wrongdoing. In focusing so heavily on that goal, however, he falls into the flaw of the magician’s judiciary as a whole: they don’t care all that much about ordinary humans so much as they care about controlling and refining magic. Ned can’t constantly recall Crispin’s attention to the rest of the world before doing so starts to make him weary and angry. Crispin, meanwhile, operates with the tunnel vision of someone who believes he won’t be anyone until he achieves this goal for himself, and he certainly won’t be worthy of Ned’s attention until he’s done.
The story deals with privilege vs. ignorance, trust and betrayal, the real vs. the theoretical, and contains allusions to addiction and predatory behavior, too. The fact that Crispin is white and Ned is black also complicates things, about as much as the fact that they’re gay. The world of the magicians is mostly white, though there are some magicians of color, and a powerful pair of justiciars who are Jewish. The world in which Ned lives is much less homogenous, and those factors also highlight the little ways in which Ned and Crispin struggle to fit into each other’s universe. There’s a lot going on just in the relationship between Crispin and Ned.
But once Crispin begins his education with a new tutor, Dr. Sweet, a mystery that affects both men adds a layer of external conflict that amplifies their already plentiful internal conflicts. Someone, likely a magician gone horribly wrong, has been killing rag and bottle shop owners in mysterious and clearly magical ways, but the justiciars who investigate find no trace of magic, and ignore the deaths as unimportant. Ned is immensely frustrated with their disinterest, and Crispin’s, too, especially because one of the dead was the man whose shop is attached to his own. Because there wasn’t that large of a cast of characters, I figured out who the culprit was rather quickly, but I also appreciated that Ned and Crispin, working together, identified the villain without missing any stupidly obvious clues.
The mix of mystery, fantasy, and romance worked really well for me. I read this book in one sitting, which isn’t difficult given that it’s about 145 pages, but I didn’t want to stop reading. I liked that the relationship started in what I would call the late-beginning/early-middle stage, where both men knew and liked one another, but weren’t sure how to make a permanent connection work emotionally or logistically. I really liked Crispin’s magical talent and would eagerly read a whole series just about graphomancy and how writing can create magic. The dialogue was also intensely layered, because each character was trying to communicate clearly, but they misread one another’s motivations, and a lot of the time ended up talking at cross-purposes. Their understanding of each other was hampered by their insecurities, and they couldn’t bring themselves to be honest about those feelings until closer to the end of the story.
I wish there had been more space for both Ned and Crispin’s characters to have been developed and explored; there was just enough backstory for each man to make their actions and decisions logical and credible, but I wanted more, in part because I liked reading about them so much. For a shorter story in a world I haven’t read before, I found this book to be rich and enjoyable, with a good balance of emotional complications that seemed logical within that world, and a mystery that had real stakes for both the world and the individual protagonists.