Magic Under Glass

The other day my postman made me happy by delivering a copy of Magic Under Glass by Jaclyn Dolamore, a book I've been hearing only good things about. I had to wait to read it as my middle son stole it but once I got it back I dived right in. While classified as a YA novel, Magic Under Glass is what I would call a Gothic, in fact it reminded me very much of the paperbacks that littered my mother's friends' houses when I was growing up. The covers of these books featured a girl, usually wearing a nightgown, running away from a big house. She was frequently looking back over her shoulder and often there was a lot of fog, with a light shining through one of the windows of the home.

These stories were about young ladies with no protectors who end up in a deserted place, working for or somehow living with, an older man. The man was often a widow, who may or may not have had a secret crazy wife living in an attic, and as the heroine discovers. If he didn't have a secret wife he was almost always hiding something, or the heroine was led to believe that he had a terrible secret. She often ended up in terrible danger, perhaps because she didn't know who to trust, or trusted the wrong person.

I was curious to see if Magic Under Glass did indeed fit this genre, which died out while I was still pretty young.
The main character, Nimira, is a "trouser girl", a singer from a faraway land called Tiansher, who is relegated to the lower strata of society because of her sex, ethnicity and occupation. She's barely scraping by as the story begins, working in a mediocre dancehall and missing her homeland. Along comes Hollis, a rich, upper-class sorcerer who needs a courageous girl who can sing. Hollis has an automaton that can play the piano and he wants a girl to sing along.

The reason the accompanist needs to be courageous is because the automaton may be haunted. All of the previous singers have panicked and gone away after the clockwork man groaned and trembled at them. Nim is not about to let the mere possibility of a ghost keep her from the adventure of a lifetime. She says goodbye to the other members of the troupe and sets off to Hollis' estate, which is isolated and in the countryside. Here she meets a creepy housekeeper, a cheery but overworked maid and the automaton, which is in the form of a clockwork man that must be wound in order to play its music.

While Nim settles into her singing routine, and meets the automaton, she also gets to know Hollis, who is on his most charming behavior, and shows her around the grounds and the gardens, which are lovely and remind her of home. But of course there is one part of the house that is off limits. Hollis explains that part of the house has been closed off but the longer Nim is in residence the more she wonders. Is there someone living in the upper portion of the house? And is that person a madwoman? If so, who is she and why is she there? What of the automaton? Is it haunted? If, what does that mean?

As Nim explores these issues she has more and more questions, including questioning her own motives and desires. Nim's options for her future are limited but if she just happens to fall in love with Hollis, and he returns her feelings, then her future would be much more secure. Can she conveniently fall for him or are there too many obstacles in the way?

My favorite thing about Magic Under Glass is the way the author takes the Gothic genre and plays with it. In the stories of my girlhood there was usually some type of supernatural element that turned out not to be supernatural at all. Something that appeared to be a ghost would actually be someone trying to clear the house for nefarious reasons. In Magic Under Glass there is actual magic, as well as fairies and all the politics that go with trying to share land with another race/species. Nim isn't a timid girl afraid of upsetting her employer; instead she's brave and determined and will do whatever she has to, no matter how frightening, to do what she thinks is right. She's also appalled by the evidence of wrongs against other species that she finds in the house and speaks out against them. I also very much liked what the author does with the madwoman in the attic trope, which I can't really discuss for fear of spoilers. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised, especially if you're like me and are horrified by how the label of madness has been used to subjugate and imprison women throughout Western history.

Magic Under Glass is the first in a series. Ms. Dolamore is working on the second, called Magic Under Stone.

One-Paragraph Review

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