Jane Austen and Charlotte Brönte never wrote about 19th century German lesbians having adventures with swordfighting and religious magic, and we have been the poorer for it until Heather Rose Jones’s Daughter of Mystery came along. At its core it takes the “marriage of convenience” trope into the constrictive world of upper-class women who haven’t reached the age of majority–Margerit winds up legally responsible for her godfather’s bodyguard, Barbara, upon his death or else her legacy from him is forfeit. Barbara, in turn, must protect Margerit from the wrath and conniving schemes of the man who had wanted to inherit.
Picture your average Jane Austen book with the balls and the “I can’t talk to you until we’re introduced” and “mixed groups are scandalous unless chaperones are present and every young man has been Approved, even if we’re literally studying college-level theology.” Then superimpose upon it a young woman who comes to understand that the religious visions she’s been having in church since she was little are not only real but rare. Margerit devotes her life to developing her gift, while Barbara tries to solve the mystery of her own identity and why it might bring her unknown enemies.
The love story is woven expertly with complicated political and legal games, about who will inherit the Alpennian throne, about why Barbara’s identity was kept from her, and how two women of differing social status can form a deep attachment despite convention with ruining reputations, which as Brönte taught us is a currency a woman of that era could not easily afford to lose. It’s made clear when the women become physically intimate, but beyond kissing the sex scenes are fade to black just as the straight literature it’s imitating would, and I think that’s a very wise choice. Not everyone likes reading sex scenes, it feels more in the mood of the period to skim over it, and personally as a queer woman I feel more dignity by having a choice just like straight people do over having plenty of books with sex and books without sex to read in which people like me get a happy ending.
I appreciated a read where I got to spend time with queer women who had positive feelings about religion, where I got to play in a historical setting without being too too drenched in homophobia (mostly just from tutting aunts, and it’s only a few isolated bits), and something set in Central Europe where my immediate ancestors are from. And I loved the complicated tricks and turns of the story, which unfolded like some kind of paper flower with layer after layer of plot twists. Very well done.
I paused in my read about 40 pages before the end once the big conflict was resolved in every bit as satisfying a way as the buildup deserved, and couldn’t stop squeeing about the book. After my rehearsal I came home and read the rest, and that was the only part I didn’t like! That’s a very personal quibble, though, because what happens there is the natural growing pains of any relationship that’s had to adjust to major changes and the book would be less deep and less well-written if she hadn’t included it. The ladies have a 100% happy ending and life together by the end; I think I just don’t like being reminded of that sophomore stage of love where all the “if we’re going to be a permanent couple we need to resolve some stuff” gets hammered out.
Daughter of Mystery is set in the early 19th century in the high society of a made-up German principality called “Alpennia”–this is primary-world fantasy in which Latin, Italy, Austria, France (and Napoleon’s wars), and Catholicism are all real, but the specific cities of the book’s tiny nation are invented much as “Pontevedra” was invented for the operetta The Merry Widow (although closely based on Montenegro.) As far as this book focusing on Catholicism and having an extended “let’s hide in a convent for a while” scene, the religious magic and devotional scenes are focused far more on the saints and to a lesser degree on Mary; Jesus is brought up only rarely. This book is NOT preaching to the audience about what they should believe or practice, so if you’re nervous about the mention of religion, don’t worry. (And if you like the idea of Catholic magic involving saints, come on in!)