There has been some delightful fantasy romance coming out of New Zealand recently. Last year’s WorldCon brought The Lord of Stariel to my attention and I’m very glad it did.
Hetta Valstar is not a respectable woman in the strictest sense. After all, she has magic: both illusion and pyromancy, the former of which she puts to use in special effects at the theatre where she’s employed. She wears red lipstick, carries her own luggage and likes to flirt (and sometimes more than flirt). Nevertheless, when her father dies, she returns home to Stariel, the family’s country estate, for the funeral. She must also participate in the ritual to determine the next Lord of Stariel. Most of the family expects Hetta’s eldest brother, Marcus, to inherit, or else her cousin, the former Lord Stariel’s preferred heir. But it is the land itself that gets to choose.
Of course, it chooses Hetta. Chaos ensues.
The Lord of Stariel is a charming story, with a 1920s vibe. Hetta herself reminds me somewhat of Miss Fisher: feminine, independent, capable and a low tolerance for sexism and patriarchal nonsense. Naturally, I loved her immediately.
I also enjoyed the way in which Hetta must come to terms with the life she has to give up, which she liked and wasn’t prepared to leave. Given the unpredictability of the last year or so, I suspect many will be able to relate.
The story is essentially a manor house mystery, although not a murder, despite starting with a death. To say more would be to spoil the story, so instead I shall say that the death brings together a reasonably large cast in the family. There’s a wonderful balance here between family conflict and genuine affection. I particularly enjoyed the warm relationship Hetta has with her brother Marius and the way it is troubled by the secrets being kept. I also appreciated that Hetta gets along with her stepfamily, despite she and her stepmother being rather different people. And although Hetta’s relationship with her cousin Jack isn’t always the smoothest, it is clear that Hetta understands and accepts (to some degree) the reasons why. Her aunt brings a stronger note of discordance with her strict notions of propriety and her outrage when Jack does not inherit Stariel.
Although a large part of the story is about family, that’s not all there is. On Hetta’s return, she finds that the gangly serving boy she had befriended as a child and written to steadily over the years has turned into a very handsome butler. Wyn is thoughful and charming, except when he’s avoiding Hetta. Nor is he the only handsome man around. Hetta’s childhood crush has become the lord of the neighbouring property and is paying attention now that Hetta is a grown woman.
Looming over all of this is the immanent threat of the fae descending on Stariel, now that the King of the Fae has found a way out of the faerie world. The Lord of Stariel needs to step forward and protect the land.
The pacing is perhaps a touch slow in places, as the various threads are being laid in place, but it does make space for some lovely moments of connection between the various characters.
So, if you’re looking for something reasonably light and charming to combat these dark times, The Lord of Stariel may be the book for you.