Authors. I am going to tell you a secret. If you want me to love your book, make it about food--preferably baking. First Diane Zahler's delicious Baker's Magic had my stomach growling, and now I'd like to gnaw on a magic tablet from R.J. Anderson's delightful A Pocket Full of Murder.
This would not be the best choice in the world, since these cookies pack a wallop. In the city of Tarreton, high magic--spells and incantations and the more "academic" types--is reserved only for the nobility. But in a city powered by magic, not electricity or steam, this leaves the poorer classes right out of luck. More people in Tarreton have magical abilities than the nobles would like, and the people created Common Magic, using herbs and magical ingredients to infuse magic into objects. These magical cookie-tablets, when broken, release their power. So, for example, if someone wishes to heat their hovel in the winter, they might buy a fire-tablet and break it in the hearth, thus releasing the stored energy. It's really quite ingenious, and while not flashy like High Magic, it gets the job done.
But Tarreton has more woes than just the bickering over High and Common Magic. The ruling council of the city oppresses the people, especially the Moshites, a dissenting religious and ethnic group whose refusal to attend mandatory Unified Church services led to the Council getting rid of a day of the week out of spite and denying Moshites work whenever they can. And although Council members are elected, only nobles have full voting privileges. The Prince, a young, handsome fellow, has proposed a new law that workers and nobles receive equal say in politics. Needless to say, this makes the nobility Quite Put Out, and when one of their own is found murdered by Common Magic, that's all the impetus they need to kill the law.
Amidst all this turmoil, Isaveth, her three sisters, and their father live as well as they can after Isaveth's mother's death from a wasting disease (likely this world's version of tuberculosis. Tuberuclosis is incredibly popular in literature for killing off characters). In order to earn a few extra coins, Isaveth decides to try baking magical tablets as her mother taught her to do--and they work! In fact, they're fantastic! But few people wish to buy their magic from a Moshite girl.
Then, when Isaveth's father is arrested for the murder of a high-ranking noble, it doesn't seem like things could get any worse.
Well, let's see: she's now parentless, jobless, shunned by her neighbors, and unable to successfully plead on her father's behalf. I'd say that's bad enough.
But a chance encounter with a pedalcycling, eye-patch-wearing urchin named Quiz changes Isaveth's life. He has the connections and the mobility and the tenacity to help Isaveth save her father. But in Tarreton, everyone has secrets, and seemingly helpful one-eyed street boys may not be who they seem to be.
Although this is probably listed as children's or middle grade, it reads a bit older than that due to the meaty discussion of privilege, class, and religion. I love that this fantasy didn't shy away from real-world problems, and that there was no magical transformation for Isaveth at the end. Far too often, poor little girls in fantasies find out that they have some Royal Heritage or some such nonsense and get to walk away from the difficulties of their childhoods. Isaveth doesn't have that stereotypical fairy-tale ending, which I am more and more inclined to dislike as I grow older, more decrepit, and more cynical (if that's possible).
The sweet relationship that develops between Quiz and Isaveth is simply lovely, and all of the Dickensian-steampunkish touches that adorn this world are perfectly balanced--nothing is overdone or so in-your-face that the story gets lost.
I am so, so, so excited that this is the first in a series! I cannot wait to follow Quiz and Isaveth on more adventures with more magical tablets. Delectable!