book reviews

Fantasy-of-Manners Books

I’ve been calling my own books ‘gaslamp fantasy’ since I published them, but more recently, I’ve started calling them by another term as well: fantasy of manners.

What is fantasy of manners?

Fantasy-of-manners is a subgenre of fantasy where the societal setting lends itself to intimate, complicated social interactions and (you guessed it) manners. Think ballrooms and manor houses rather than battlefields. The name draws from ‘comedy of manners’, and while fantasy-of-manners books aren’t always humorous, they often do have a whimsical / tongue-in-cheek tone.

Wait, how is fantasy-of-manners different from gaslamp fantasy?

I’ve been musing on this (I do love musing on subgenres). I think there is naturally a lot of overlap between gaslamp fantasy and fantasy of manners and that many books (including mine) are both. Gaslamp fantasy describes the world’s technology level / historical time-period feel, and fantasy of manners describes the society and focus of the story’s conflicts.

Why is fantasy of manners so great?

  • Ridiculous rules and constraints create massive potential for delicious interpersonal drama and / or humorous situations.
  • Aesthetics. There’s just something about balls and men in waistcoats, isn’t there?
  • Intimate focus. Politics, rumours, and clever conversations rather than battles and action sequences.
  • The fun of seeing how something as wild as magic fits into a world of rigid societal rules.

So what are some examples of fantasy-of-manners books?

I’m so glad you asked! Here is a list of fantasy-of-manners books I have read and enjoyed. These are all books with strong romantic elements, because that’s how I roll. Please do recommend more in the comments – I love this subgenre, so I’m always happy to find more.

15 Fantasy-of-Manners Books To Read

(in no particular order)

The Lord of Stariel by AJ Lancaster

Yes, I know. Tacky. But I have to add my own books to this listicle for SEO purposes, and technically I have read and enjoyed them! Marketing shmarketing and the hustle of the self-published author and all that. Anyway, if you like large-extended-family antics, melodramatic fae, and magical sentient estates, you might like my books.

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: Not in this book, but some later in the series.

The Lady Jewel Diviner by Rosalie Oaks

Miss Elinor Avely’s proper upbringing cannot prepare her for the tiny, spinster vampire who crashes into her sitting room and demands to be fed with a sheep.

Elinor already has enough troubles without having to catch ruminants. First, her secret gift for divining jewels has landed her in scandal, exiling her from London society. Second, a nobleman of dubious repute wants her to find a cache of smuggled jewels, hidden somewhere along the Devon coastline. Last – and worst – she is invited to cream tea at the local manor. And while the autocratic and magnificent Earl of Beresford might be there (and perhaps the jewels themselves too), Beresford is the last person Elinor wants to meet over cream tea.

When a dead body is discovered along the cliffs, of course, such delicate considerations become secondary. Fortunately, Elinor now has a small vampiric chaperone – even if said spinster has a habit of appearing stark naked – and together they are ready to risk the hard questions.

These books have the spirit of cosy mystery novels combined with Regencies. Plus vampires and selkies. It works wonderfully, I promise. The main character can magically sense gemstones.

What I particularly adore about this series is how joyful it is. Very much not taking itself too seriously, and I absolutely cackled my way through especially the climax in this book. There’s a slow-burn enemies-to-lovers romance with the high-handed (but well-meaning) Earl of Beresford.

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: No

Subversive by Colleen Cowley

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.

Oof, this trilogy was so addictive I read all three in a row. They have an almost thriller vibe to them with lots of politics and secrets. I loved the enemies-to-lovers romance and the fascinating exploration of all the ways that magical oaths might go wrong.

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: Yes

The Midnight Bargain by CL Polk

Beatrice Clayborn is a sorceress who practices magic in secret, terrified of the day she will be locked into a marital collar that will cut off her powers to protect her unborn children. She dreams of becoming a full-fledged Magus and pursuing magic as her calling as men do, but her family has staked everything to equip her for Bargaining Season, when young men and women of means descend upon the city to negotiate the best marriages. The Clayborns are in severe debt, and only she can save them, by securing an advantageous match before their creditors come calling.

In a stroke of luck, Beatrice finds a grimoire that contains the key to becoming a Magus, but before she can purchase it, a rival sorceress swindles the book right out of her hands. Beatrice summons a spirit to help her get it back, but her new ally exacts a price: Beatrice’s first kiss . . . with her adversary’s brother, the handsome, compassionate, and fabulously wealthy Ianthe Lavan.

The more Beatrice is entangled with the Lavan siblings, the harder her decision becomes: If she casts the spell to become a Magus, she will devastate her family and lose the only man to ever see her for who she is; but if she marries—even for love—she will sacrifice her magic, her identity, and her dreams. But how can she choose just one, knowing she will forever regret the path not taken?

My favourite thing about this book is the magic – magicians make bargains with spirits to do their bidding. I choose to imagine them as demonic pokemon.

Self-published: No
Steamy scenes: No

Half a Soul by Olivia Atwater

It’s difficult to find a husband in Regency England when you’re a young lady with only half a soul.

Ever since a faerie cursed her, Theodora Ettings has had no sense of fear, embarrassment, or even happiness—a condition which makes her sadly prone to accidental scandal. Dora’s only goal for the London Season this year is to stay quiet and avoid upsetting her cousin’s chances at a husband… but when the Lord Sorcier of England learns of her condition, she finds herself drawn ever more deeply into the tumultuous concerns of magicians and faeries.

Lord Elias Wilder is handsome, strange, and utterly uncouth—but gossip says that he regularly performs three impossible things before breakfast, and he is willing to help Dora restore her missing half. If Dora’s reputation can survive both her ongoing curse and her sudden connection with the least-liked man in all of high society, then she may yet reclaim her normal place in the world… but the longer Dora spends with Elias Wilder, the more she begins to suspect that one may indeed fall in love, even with only half a soul.

A whimsical Regency fantasy romance (with capricious fairies) that manages to touch on darker issues whilst remaining overall light in tone.

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: No

Tea & Sympathetic Magic by Tansy Rayner Roberts

A tale of manners, magic, teacups and thirst.

Meet Miss Mnemosyne Seabourne, the one lady in the Teacup Isles who doesn’t want to marry the Duke. Meet Mr Thornbury, a spellcracker whose job is protecting the Duke from the love charms of eligible ladies. Together, they fight elopements!

Featuring croquet, libraries, enchantresses, teacups, portals and cake. 

What impresses me most about these cosy novellas is how satisfying they are. Each contains a mystery, furthers the romantic arc, and includes a cast of entertaining secondary characters. I have no idea how Tansy fits so much in to such a short length.

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: No

Sorcerer to the crown by Zen Cho

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, freed slave, eminently proficient magician, and Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers—one of the most respected organizations throughout all of Britain—ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up.

But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

This book is so good I can’t actually encapsulate its goodness with words (ironically). Zacharias, the titular Sorcerer to the Crown, is my favourite and I just want an endless amount of nice things for him.

Self-published: No
Steamy scenes: No

Empath’s Lure by Jen Lynning

Lisca doesn’t want to be a part of Lhanaperi’s trade delegation. While she is heir to a powerful merchant family, she is on the negotiation team for one reason only—her empathic talents are the perfect foil to Khiran BeVelor, the Moialans’ not-so-secret weapon.

Being part incubus gives Khiran the power to engender more than just lust in the people around him. Too bad his uncle, the king, thinks his only use is seducing his opponents. Khiran plans to ignore his uncle’s expectations and rely on other emotions to gain favorable trade concessions for Moial. But when the empath detects his every lure—even those he didn’t know he used—seduction might be the only option.

But who will be the seducer, and who the seduced?

A hero who can manipulate emotions (but not sense them) meets a heroine who can sense emotions (but not manipulate them) on opposite sides of the treaty negotiation talks between two nations. Full of courtly intrigue and political shenanigans as well as the burgeoning romance between these enemies-turned-eventual-allies.

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: Yes

A Marvellous Light by Freya Marske

Robin Blyth has more than enough bother in his life. He’s struggling to be a good older brother, a responsible employer, and the harried baronet of a seat gutted by his late parents’ excesses. When an administrative mistake sees him named the civil service liaison to a hidden magical society, he discovers what’s been operating beneath the unextraordinary reality he’s always known.

Now Robin must contend with the beauty and danger of magic, an excruciating deadly curse, and the alarming visions of the future that come with it—not to mention Edwin Courcey, his cold and prickly counterpart in the magical bureaucracy, who clearly wishes Robin were anyone and anywhere else.

Robin’s predecessor has disappeared, and the mystery of what happened to him reveals unsettling truths about the very oldest stories they’ve been told about the land they live on and what binds it. Thrown together and facing unexpected dangers, Robin and Edwin discover a plot that threatens every magician in the British Isles—and a secret that more than one person has already died to keep.

The magic system fascinated me in this one – magicians cast using hand motions based on the cat’s cradle game. I also loved how many scenes are set in libraries and just how much William Morris wallpaper features.

Self-published: No
Steamy scenes: Yes

Snowspelled by Stephanie Burgis

Four months ago, Cassandra Harwood was the first woman magician in Angland, and she was betrothed to the brilliant, intense love of her life.

Now Cassandra is trapped in a snowbound house party deep in the elven dales, surrounded by bickering gentleman magicians, manipulative lady politicians, her own interfering family members, and, worst of all, her infuriatingly stubborn ex-fiancé, who refuses to understand that she’s given him up for his own good.

But the greatest danger of all lies outside the manor in the falling snow, where a powerful and malevolent elf-lord lurks…and Cassandra lost all of her own magic four months ago.

To save herself, Cassandra will have to discover exactly what inner powers she still possesses – and risk everything to win a new kind of happiness. 

A magical manor-house mystery set in a kind of gender-bent version of Regency England (with added trolls and fae). It’s a novella, and I read it in one go and regret nothing.

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: No

The Magpie Lord by KJ Charles

Exiled to China for twenty years, Lucien Vaudrey never planned to return to England. But with the mysterious deaths of his father and brother, it seems the new Lord Crane has inherited an earldom. He’s also inherited his family’s enemies. He needs magical assistance, fast. He doesn’t expect it to turn up angry.

Magician Stephen Day has good reason to hate Crane’s family. Unfortunately, it’s his job to deal with supernatural threats. Besides, the earl is unlike any aristocrat he’s ever met, with the tattoos, the attitude… and the way Crane seems determined to get him into bed. That’s definitely unusual.

Soon Stephen is falling hard for the worst possible man, at the worst possible time. But Crane’s dangerous appeal isn’t the only thing rendering Stephen powerless. Evil pervades the house, a web of plots is closing round Crane, and if Stephen can’t find a way through it—they’re both going to die.

This has a real gothic feel with the terrifying curse afflicting one of the heroes and the ominous magpie imagery.

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: Yes

Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

Sensible, practical Elinor Tregarth really did plan to be the model poor relation when she moved into Hathergill Hall. She certainly never meant to kidnap her awful cousin Penelope’s pet dragon. She never expected to fall in love with the shameless – but surprisingly sweet – fortune hunter who came to court Penelope. And she never dreamed that she would have to enter into an outrageous magical charade to save her younger sisters’ futures.

However, even the most brilliant scholars of 1817 England still haven’t ferreted out all the lurking secrets of rediscovered dragonkind…and even the most sensible of heroines can still make a reckless wish or two when she’s pushed. Now Elinor will have to find out just how rash and resourceful she can be when she sets aside all common sense. Maybe, just maybe, she’ll even be impractical enough to win her own true love and a happily ever after…with the unpredictable and dangerous “help” of the magical creature who has adopted her.

Regency romance with pet dragons! The moment I heard about this book, I knew I must read it, and I was right. I inhaled this delightful confection in a single sitting (seems to be something of a trend for me with Stephanie Burgis’ books).

Self-published: Yes
Steamy scenes: No

Witchmark by CL Polk

In an original world reminiscent of Edwardian England in the shadow of a World War, cabals of noble families use their unique magical gifts to control the fates of nations, while one young man seeks only to live a life of his own.

Magic marked Miles Singer for suffering the day he was born, doomed either to be enslaved to his family’s interest or to be committed to a witches’ asylum. He went to war to escape his destiny and came home a different man, but he couldn’t leave his past behind. The war between Aeland and Laneer leaves men changed, strangers to their friends and family, but even after faking his own death and reinventing himself as a doctor at a cash-strapped veterans’ hospital, Miles can’t hide what he truly is.

When a fatally poisoned patient exposes Miles’ healing gift and his witchmark, he must put his anonymity and freedom at risk to investigate his patient’s murder. To find the truth he’ll need to rely on the family he despises, and on the kindness of the most gorgeous man he’s ever seen.

Includes fae and magical soulbonds!

Self-published: No
Steamy scenes: Fade to black

Soulless by Gail Carriger

Alexia Tarabotti is laboring under a great many social tribulations.

First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire–and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous, and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart? 

My heart will always hold a huge soft spot for Lord Maccon, gruff but well-meaning werewolf alpha.

Self-published: No
Steamy scenes: Yes

Sorcery & Cecelia by Patricia C Wrede & Caroline Stevermer

A great deal is happening in London and the country this season.

For starters, there’s the witch who tried to poison Kate at the Royal College of Wizards. There’s also the man who seems to be spying on Cecelia. (Though he’s not doing a very good job of it–so just what are his intentions?) And then there’s Oliver. Ever since he was turned into a tree, he hasn’t bothered to tell anyone where he is.

Clearly, magic is a deadly and dangerous business. And the girls might be in fear for their lives . . . if only they weren’t having so much fun!

This was the first fantasy-of-manners book I ever read, many years ago and before I knew the term for the subgenre. It’s told as letters back and forth between two friends as they each get embroiled in their respective mysteries / shenanigans, and it is pure delight. Maybe time for a re-read, in fact.

Self-published: No
Steamy scenes: No

3 thoughts on “Fantasy-of-Manners Books”

  1. The Magpie Lord and subsequent books in this trilogy are superb, as is just about everything K.J. Charles writes. I have A Marvelous Light on my TBR list and can’t wait to read it. I read Sorcery and Cecelia years ago (I love the epistolary format) after reading The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede aloud to my kids. Those books, although they are ostensibly Juvenile fiction, also fit the Fantasy of Manners criteria. I highly recommend them, even for adults.

    I’ll add Deven and the Dragon by Eliot Grayson, a sweet, gender-bending novella with a Beauty and the Beast retelling. One of my favorite finds of 2021 has been Salt Magic, Skin Magic by Lee Welch.Set in an alt-history Victorian era, Soren is being trapped on his family estate by some kind of malevolent magic. A visiting magician (sent to the estate under cover to find out a different secret) offers unexpected help. The magic system is clever and unusual, and the romance is very sweet (also it’s pretty much fade to black).

    Like

  2. Melissa McShane’s “Burning Bright” – a young women from an aristocratic magical family in 19th century England, struggling with the constraints of societal and family expectations, turns to service with the War Office as a means of making full use of her talent. Book 1 of the Extraordinaries series, and all of them are good!

    Like

Leave a reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s