Gary K. Wolfe Reviews The Embroidered Book by Kate Heartfield

The Embroidered Book, Kate Heartfield (Harp­erVoyager 978-0-00838-059-5, $28.99, 672pp, hc) May 2022.

After reading Kate Heartfield’s thoroughly engrossing The Embroidered Book, with its account of the secret role of magic in European politics around the time of the French Revolution, I made the mistake of checking out what Wikipedia had to say about such topics as ‘‘secret history’’ or ‘‘historical fantasy.’’ Not too surprisingly, the depth and consistency of the articles offered a few helpful insights, all of which reinforced what I’d already suspected: infusing magic into history is much like infusing time travel into anything: the rules should be consistent and rigorously observed, and the rules are whatever the author says they are. And, as with time travel, magical-history fiction ranges along a spectrum from full-blown alternate histories to tales in which the historical record remains pretty much intact. (I’ve even seen it argued, with some justification, that all historical fiction is to some degree alternate history, since, for example, Tolstoy introduces a whole passel of made-up families into the Napoleonic wars in War and Peace).

Heartfield clearly belongs on the conservation-of-history end of the spectrum. Nearly all her central characters are actual historical figures, though only a few are well-known enough to be familiar to most readers. Rather wisely, she avoids the temptation of the celebrity walk-ons that often plague such fiction; her characters may read Montesquieu and Voltaire and recall a vivid performance by the child Mozart, but the only main viewpoint character with an extensive pop-culture résumé is Marie Antoinette, whom we first meet as an 11-year-old girl named Antoine in the household of Habsburg empress Maria Theresa in Vienna in 1767. Along with her siblings – most notably her older sister Charlotte, who will become Queen of Naples – she is familiar with a richly embroidered book of magical spells left behind by a murdered governess, and the children playfully experiment with these spells to enchant dolls or items of clothing–but each spell requires a sacrifice, which can range from coins and nail-clippings to actual memories. Their mother, however, is less interested in magic, or even in her children’s happiness, than in forging political alliances, which eventually results in Antoine be­ing married off at 14 to the French dauphin, and Charlotte to the dissolute Ferdinand of Naples. The bulk of the novel traces their contrasting careers, and their eventual alienation, over the next three decades. In Italy, Charlotte discovers a secret society of ‘‘magisters’’ called the Order of 1326, and eventually joins it with the aid of the occultist Cagliostro, discovering that it has its own mysterious book of spells called the Reconditus. But other rogue magisters are at work both in Italy and France, where some of them may be helping to foment the beginnings of revolutionary fervor. Lafayette’s involvement in the American war of independence, and a diplomatic mission from Benjamin Franklin, complicate matters further for Antoinette, already distrusted for her Austrian origins and family connections.

Heartfield’s major fantasy inventions consist of the variety and ingenuity of the spells the sisters learn to deploy, from portraits that serve as eavesdropping devices or that even physically transform their real-life subjects, to others than can actually double stores of grain (sometimes we wonder if there are any practical limitations on the spells, though the required sacrifices serve to keep them in check). Her novel is rooted far more firmly in its characterizations and troubled family relationship. It might seem counterintuitive these days to focus on the hyperprivileged scions of imperialist royalty, but in Heartfield’s telling, even queens need to battle for agency. Charlotte nearly has to blackmail her way into the all-male Soci­ety of 1326, while Antoinette faces increasingly scurrilous and even pornographic broadsides about her sexuality and her ambitions – even as she tries desperately to find ways to alleviate the starvation in France caused by grain shortages. Neither of their husbands amount to much – Charlotte’s Ferdinand is as incompetent as he is arrogant – though each of the sisters finds some measure of romance, Antoinette with a Swedish diplomat and Charlotte with a British naval com­mander. But The Embroidered Book is hardly a traditional historical romance, and court politics turns out to be as deadly a game as sorcery. Her main historical characters – as well as many fas­cinating secondary figures, such as the portraitist Vigée Le Brun – are so persuasively drawn, given Heartfield’s apparently meticulous attention to historical research (I’ll leave it to history buffs to nitpick), that her feminist revisioning of a crucial period in European history is genuinely provocative. As with all such conservation-of-history fantasies, of course, we’re left with the impression that, in the end, all those spells and magisters didn’t really make much difference. Heartfield addresses this rather cleverly in a plot line that describes how preventing out-of-control magisters from messing up the world became an important goal for both the sisters and their allies. Many of their major achievements, then, are confined to the secret history part of the nar­rative, and the price they finally pay makes for a heartbreaking, if inevitable, ending to a fabulously immersive novel.

Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.

This review and more like it in the July 2022 issue of Locus.

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