Review: Uncommon Charm, by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver

Uncommon Charm, by Emily Bergslien and Kat Weaver, lives up to its name. The frothy period piece, set in a magic-wielding alternate 1920’s London, charmed this reviewer, though it’s a hard story to classify. It’s part alternate history, part comedy of manners, part magical treatise, and part family mystery, all tied together by chatty, vivacious narration.

The story is told by Julia, the charming and frivolous 16 year old daughter of Lady Aloysia Stirling, one of the most notorious wizards in 1920’s London. Julia has just been expelled from the Marable School for Girls when Simon Wolf arrives, to study magical with Lady Aloysia. Simon is serious, anxious, and also the illegitimate son of a close family friend, Prince Vladimir. The two become fast friends.

Julia and Simon stumble upon a painful secret from her mother’s past, and have to sort through what it all means. The main thrust is not about solving the mystery, so much as understanding it, and integrating the way in which this new knowledge affects their understanding of the people involved. This leads to some exceedingly heavy revelations, though, so be prepared.

Julia’s relationships form the backbone of this book. Her growing friendship with Simon starts the story, and also serves as the catalyst for the plot. Their differing personalities – he quiet, shy, and serious, and she talkative, frivolous, and clever – complement each other, and each brings out the best in the other. Over the course of the story, both Julia and Simon come into themselves. Simon learns to trust his magic, and grows in confidence, while Julia comes to better understand her mother, the upper-class society she lives in, and who she truly wishes to be.

In contrast, Julia and her mother get on each other’s nerves. Lady Aloysia is neurotic, reclusive, and eccentric as only the wealthy can be (she also read as potentially neuroatypical to me, though I don’t know what the authors intended). She is outwardly patient with her flighty daughter, but Julia smarts from the disapproval she senses under the surface.

Magic forms much of the backdrop of this story. There is no firm system, and in fact, most of the conversation between Lady Aloysia and Simon revolve around the fact that magic is undefinable, nearly ineffable. She is constantly prodding her pupil to examine his own experiences, to figure out what is true for him, and then to act on it. It’s a refreshing change from novels that rely on strict formulas for magic, with clearly defined cause and effect, energy and cost, and contributes to the intellectual tone.

A quick shout-out to the deft portrayal of Judaism. Simon is a young man of great faith, and his Jewishness subtly influences everything he does, without ever becoming his entire character. In particular, the way that his faith influences and defines his use of magic is fascinating.

My only criticism of this book is that it can be so subtle as to cross the line into vagueness. I struggled to keep track of what was happening, and of what Julia and Simon had discovered, because nobody ever talked about it directly. This is probably true to life, but it made the story hard to follow at times. I couldn’t fully piece it together until I read it the second time. Fortunately, Julia’s narration and the charming cast of characters made that a pleasure, rather than a chore.

All in all, Uncommon Charm delivers a refreshing story with a solid core. Though the novella does explore some dark past events, I still found this to be a delightful palette cleanser between heavier books. This is a strong choice for anybody who enjoys a blending of roaring 20’s high society and magic.