Book Review

Subversive by Colleen Cowley

Subversive is the first book in the Clandestine Magic trilogy and when I finished it I immediately one-clicked the next two books. Subversive ends on a cliffhanger so be prepared to rush to the next book, which also ends on a cliffhanger, before wrapping everything up at the trilogy’s end. The first book also contains a lot of discussion and trauma around the issue of consent and magic.

Here’s the publisher’s description:

In an America controlled by wizards and 100 years behind on women’s rights, Beatrix Harper counts herself among the resistance—the Women’s League for the Prohibition of Magic. Then Peter Blackwell, the only wizard her town has ever produced, unexpectedly returns home and presses her into service as his assistant.

Beatrix fears he wants to undermine the League. His real purpose is far more dangerous for them both.

Frankly, I expected some pretty straightforward romance stuff from this book, but it’s actually very complex and includes a lot of complicated issues regarding consent, ethics, and strategy not to mention a non-stop pace of events and tasks and conversations. These are very busy people, and the issues they are involved in include the rights of women, a number of conspiracies, trying to catch a spy in the League, attempting to neutralize a terrible weapon, putting on a convention, and personal issues between family members and friends. On top of that, Peter’s job is to basically fix all the town’s problems with magic, so he is inundated with tasks ranging from curing ills to repairing tractors with Beatrix’s assistance, while Beatrix grapples with an event that overthrows the status quo. It makes for exhausting, though exciting, reading.

The problem with reviewing this book, especially in terms of the romance, is that it is chock full of moments that reset all the relationships and premises so even to outline the conflicts between Beatrix and Peter is to drop enormous spoilers. It impressed me that these upsets felt organic as opposed to random shock value plot complications. Readers should know, as I mentioned, that this book ends on a cliffhanger. If you want to know if there is an HEA, readers, I peeked at the end of Book 3 and:

Massive spoiler ahoy!

There is.

Readers should be prepared for a LOT of angst and struggles on the topic of magic, autonomy, consent, trust, and forgiveness. One reason I enjoyed this book is that the issue of consent and violation of autonomy is taken seriously and discussed seriously, and when it is violated there are serious lasting repercussions. It’s not always an easy book to read but at no time did I feel that the characters considered coercion of any kind to be anything less than a perversion of magic.

The pace was exciting, but at a price. The characters never have to time just be together, or to sort out their feelings about things. I’m glad there are two more books although I rather suspect there won’t be much downtime in those, either. It’s good to know that you can count on your beloved in a crisis, and it’s good to know that the sex is scorching, but it’s also good to know if you enjoy just reading books in the same house at the same time while drinking tea, and that is something Peter and Beatrix have not yet figured out. They are constantly tiptoeing a line between trust and distrust, allying and opposing. Their respect for each other is solid and the chemistry is great, and they share a dry sense of humor, but because of the magical things that transpire in spoilery ways they can’t (as of the end of Subversive) settle into an actual relationship of any real kind.

I enjoyed this book for the ideas, the world-building, the constant drama, the depth of central and supporting characters, the themes, the feminism, and the romantic potential. I’m focusing my review on the first book, but having one-clicked the others I can say that with the exception of some pacing issues these stay consistent across the series, and the significant problems between Peter and Beatrix are resolved in an emotionally realistic and satisfying manner. In addition to Peter and Beatrix’s emotional problems, several plot issues that frustrated me in the first and second book are resolved beautifully in the third. While the books are either too fast or too slow, they have excellent payoff and should delight fans of magic, feminism, and romance earned after many barriers to true love are breached.

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Subversive by Colleen Cowley

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  1. Kit says:

    All three books are on KU in the UK…

    Well, we’re into a third lockdown and I’m not going anywhere soon.

  2. Arijo says:

    WHOA, you really got me with your “massive spoiler”!! I literally looked at it between between my fingers to make sure I did not catch anything beyond Yes / No, haha! I’ll be reading this book, thanks.

  3. Bagel says:

    These sound great, but I keep giggling at ‘Peter and Beatrix’ – Beatrix Potter’s most famous character is Peter Rabbit.

  4. chacha1 says:

    @Bagel, that’s exactly what I thought. 🙂

  5. Lisa F says:

    Whelp, this feels like my cup of tea!

  6. I will definitely be trying this! Thank you for the review.

  7. Kareni says:

    This does sound good, Carrie! Thanks for your review.

  8. de Pizan says:

    I had such a hard time with what Peter does, that knowing the series spoiler does not actually make me happy. I think Peter’s actions are far too problematic and upsetting. And I vehemently disagree that their respect is solid, how can it be with what he’s done? And while the book does try to say that what Peter’s done is wrong, those constant dreams continually undercut that message for me.

  9. Diana says:

    So, is there a happy end or not? I’d rather not start this if one of them dies at the end or something….

  10. Thanks for this. These books weren’t on my radar at all, and it’s always helpful to get a thoughtful review that leads to good book recommendations.

  11. @Diana, if you click on “Massive spoiler ahoy” in the review, it will reveal the answer to your question. (I have a whole list here that covers whether the books tread into territory a reader might consider a trigger or pet peeve:

    Thank you so much for reading, Carrie!

  12. Emily A says:

    What does “presses her into service” mean? (From the blurb.) It sounds creep; like she’s forced to work for him. I’m not sure I want an HEA for these two people.

  13. de Pizan says:

    @Emily A, he basically forces her current employer to fire her from her job and threatens that he will get her blacklisted from other places in town hiring her so that she has no choice but to work for him. Her choices were already severely limited anyway because women are banned from most kinds of work, and also because many don’t approve of her family’s work in the Prohibition of Magic group; and then as she is the only breadwinner in the family and putting her sister through college, she desperately needs that work.

  14. Jennifer says:

    I’ll put it this way: Peter starts off badly, but absolutely regrets his actions and does his very best to change the situation, take back what he did, and make amends for it. I was not bothered in the end and would recommend the book–this review sold me on buying it and I immediately bought all of the author’s books after I finished the first one. He learns from his mistakes and it seems pretty clear that he does respect Beatrix, and definitely goes above and beyond to help her, her family/friends and their cause.

    Peter also has some reasons as to what he is doing, and he legitimately needs to swear everyone he works with into not being able to tattle on him to law enforcement, despite the unpleasantness of vow-swearing and the surprise effects that ends up having on both himself and Beatrix. He knows Bad Things About The Government, basically, and he’s trying to work against that, and anyone who works with him is at risk. I can’t say I like that he has to swear everyone to secrecy, but that’s something I feel he reasonably has to do.

  15. Mollykins says:

    I’m very glad I decided to give this one a chance. I agree with every criticism (especially the pacing) but I liked the characters enough that the flaws of the book did not impair my enjoyment of it. Indeed, I immediately got the two sequels and read them in quick succession. Overall I thought the thorny ethical issues were well-handled, the characters had rational, believable motivations, and the HEA was truly earned.

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