The Mystic Marriage is the story of a proud, emotionally closed-off, initially friendless and basically penniless young woman, Antuniet, struggling to redeem her family’s honor after her brother [insert spoilers for Daughter of Mystery.] There are three subplots in the book: Antuniet’s alchemy, i.e. trying to create the magic rocks and impart special properties to them; a complicated political cold war of intrigue between two middle-aged princesses both of whose adolescent sons might have the throne some day; and the romance between Antuniet and Jeanne, a society butterfly whose extroversion and flirtations are the biggest foil to Antuniet’s sullen depths the author could possibly have created.
As you’d expect from a romance between a flirt and a Wounded Bird trope, a lot of trust has to be painstakingly earned before they Get There. Antuniet is fond of disappearing suddenly, giving up too quickly because it’s easier. Jeanne truly has to earn her trust, over and over again. But they’re not alone. Not only do they have the first book’s couple watching over them, but the rest of their society’s queer women as well–some married “with an understanding”, some widowed, but all close in the friendship of their difference just as in real life.
I really enjoy getting to read about queer women who have bigger lives than just the romances of the book’s focus, so I enjoyed the presence of not only two main f/f couples (one of which was entirely stable throughout the course of the book, a huge relief as it’s rare to get the pleasure of reading about established queer couples) but also their friends. Also, this book introduced Jews into Jones’s fictional corner of Central Europe, and since we were there in real life, I’m glad we get to be included in fiction, in the form of Antuniet’s apprentice Anna and to a lesser extent her sisters and father. (Although: Anna’s nose is too strong? Suuuuuure. Yes, I know that was the gentile POV character’s opinion. I’m gonna sass about it anyway.) And we weren’t anything stereotypical or creepy, for which I am completely grateful.
I feel like the pacing on this book was probably better than the first one, too, and it took me a lot less time to read. Also, like the first one, this is a plot (and to secondary degree, characterization & relationships) focused adventure story, and any time a character takes someone to bed it fades to black. To me that helps cement the period-feel of the books and also provide that bit of dignity that comes from having queer representation and indeed queer focus in stories without sex scenes.
There is true value in the sheer amount of woman-focused adventure in these books. The political intrigue is a conflict between two powerful older women, and the four POV characters plus the apprentice and a few other scholars and members of the lesbian clique are all women. Nor does this female focus make the book’s population seem unnatural; there are plenty of male characters who play important roles; they’re just not allowed to dominate the story as they usually would.
I also congratulate the author for including diversity within women who love women — one of the clique’s members, Tionez, says she loves her husband so it’s easy to read her as bi, but neither this nor her frivolous personality traits get her blackballed from being able to love women or be friends with the main, exclusively-women-loving characters. This is important. I love that a lesbian novel included someone who fits the “bad bi” trope who is still allowed to frolic with everybody else and be a trusted friend. There are real people like her and they are still part of any “us” I count myself in.
Warning for a G-slur somewhere in there and a homophobic nun saying annoying shit for maybe one paragraph. (Oh, and Antuniet has a two-second affair with a man in the beginning of the book but it’s over before it starts and you won’t have to deal with any more lesbians in m/f sexual encounters for the rest of the story.)