Book Reviews

Eclipse by Celia Lake | AtSite.Store

I came to Eclipse via these two tweets shared on Twitter.

It was the second one which really got me. I love a good magical school story, but the Harry Potter books never quite worked for me. Eclipse, which promised a view from the staff room of a magical school in the 1920s, sounded like my catnip.

(Also, the author’s page has a content warning that includes a warning for ‘academic politics including an unpleasant faculty meeting’, which made me laugh and also sigh, because oh yes, that’s worth a content warning alright.)

Eclipse is a very gentle, cosy sort of romance set at Schola, a prestigious boarding school for students of magic. The story is set in 1924, and the shadow of the Great War is still very present. The magical and non-magical communities alike lost thousands of people to the war and to the Scourge (Albion’s version of the Spanish Flu) that followed, and these losses have affected society in ways that nobody wants to talk about or even think about directly.

Both of our protagonists have been very personally affected by the War and its aftermath. Isembard fought in the War, not in the trenches, but in rather more ethically ambiguous circumstances, and he is still affected by his memories of the terrible things he did in the service of his country. His family wants him to challenge for a seat on the Council, magical Albion’s ruling body, but he is uncertain whether this is something he could or indeed should do. Instead, he has taken up a role at Schola teaching Protective Magics, and serving as a bodyguard and mentor for two scions of Council families.

Thesan has been the Professor of Astronomy at Schola for seven years, having attained her Mastery at an unusually young age. The stars are her first love, and teaching her passion – she is the sort of teacher who cares deeply for her students and really thinks about how she can best reach them. Unlike Isembard, her family is not socially prominent. In fact, Thesan and her siblings were the first generation in her family to make it into Schola. For her, it is the aftermath of the war that is personal. With so many losses in the magical community, far more young people of her class are gaining access to educational and professional opportunities that they would never previously have received. Unsurprisingly, there is significant pushback from the older families, who liked things the way they were and are unwilling to accept that change might be not just needed, but inevitable.

I really loved both protagonists. Thesan is fiercely intelligent and actually quite bolshie, but this is easy to miss, at least at first, because she is not a character who pursues confrontation. She is quiet and dresses in a way that is blandly irreproachable. Her House is one which is known for producing reliable, plodding types, and Astronomy is a discipline that rewards patience and attention to detail. She also faces a certain amount of familiar misogyny about her abilities, but generally doesn’t bother to correct it directly.

She shrugged amiably. “I am much younger than he is, moderately pretty, blonde, and could not possibly have a sensible thought in my head. Despite the fact that I have lived and breathed nothing but astronomy for more than a decade and he’s distinctly a dabbler.” She added a bit more. “To be fair, it’s not that he’s entirely useless. Shiva’s right that he has a particular knack for demonstration of some of the modal approaches to aligning magic and music. It’s just that his theories are poorly anchored in the scientific method.”

If you’ve ever been to a scientific seminar, you know just how vicious that last bit is.

Thesan may not seek confrontation with those who think her lesser, but her peaceable nature doesn’t come from timidity, but from a bone deep confidence – she knows her own worth and her abilities, and is entirely comfortable letting others figure it out in their own time. Or not, as the case may be. I admired her poise, and particularly her ability to simply say her piece, logically and articulately, in socially difficult situations, and then simply let it be.

She knew how to teach people to understand the myriad lights of the cosmos, but only if they were willing to look up.

What I would give for that sort of certainty!

You need some stars now

Isembard has a lot more of the traditional romance hero about him. He is very charming and gallant, and generous with compliments and attention. He seems to be more in command of himself and his world than Thesan, but underneath, he is far less sure of himself. Where Thesan knows who and what she is, Isembard is far less grounded. His family is not warm or supportive, the War damaged him both physically and emotionally, and for a long time he struggled with alcoholism. While he is a good teacher and a conscientious mentor, he is still trying to figure out who he is now, and what he wants.

This is the point in the review where Sarah started leaving plaintive comments in the margins asking if there was, in fact, a plot, and would I, perhaps, care to mention it? But the truth is, this is not a book that has a lot of plot. The story really is mostly about two people getting to know each other better, and falling in love, while doing their jobs. The doing-their-jobs part expands into a couple of subplots involving Mysterious Student Behaviour on the one hand and Educational Reform on the other, as well as epic faculty politics and a rather unfortunate school play, but much of the story is really a study of the complex interactions of a group of people who live and work together and share some goals, while disagreeing vehemently over others. I would describe this book as relationship-driven rather than plot- or character-driven. The plots are little ripples rather than great waves. I would not have thought I would like this – I complain VEHEMENTLY about films that don’t have proper plots – but I really, really did.

Back to the relationship between Thesan and Isembard, which, as you may have gathered, I loved. Their friendship is solid and comfortable from the start, and I liked their openness and frankness with each other when the question of sex raises (ahem) itself. I actually got the sense that Isembard is romantically interested in Thesan from quite early on, but he is very cautious about approaching her that way, perhaps because he doesn’t want to risk the friendship, or perhaps because he doesn’t want to inflict his terrible family on her. There is a sort of theme in the second half of the book of Isembard needing to perform three impossible tasks to win Thesan’s love, which is telling. Thesan treats this idea with tender indulgence, but for Isembard it is deadly serious – he is very much a knight questing after a lady, but also, I suspect he thinks he doesn’t deserve her.

But they are so beautiful together. Thesan is a good match for Isembard, because she both grounds him and refuses to let him be less than who he is. Isembard is a good match for Thesan because he sees past her protective coloration and recognises her incisiveness, her kindness, and her determination to fight for her students. And there is so much tenderness and affection between them. I just felt so happy for both of them by the end of the story!

Eclipse is not a typical magical school story, though there are times when one has the sense that there is a children’s fantasy novel going on just on the other side of the page, and that we are only seeing the edges of it. It is also not a typical romance. While Thesan and Isembard are a delight, their story is a small part of an entire moment of social change. Questions of class, of education, and how the one influences access to the other are central to this story. Schola itself is the most prestigious boarding school in the country, and while the entrance exams are supposed to be solely about determining ability, they contain all sorts of assumptions that affect who is likely to do well in them. Here is Thesan explaining this to Isembard:

“I got into Schola because – we didn’t have a household of servants, but Mum knew to read us stories about them. One of my aunts helped us figure out what to study, with my older brothers and sister. We had to learn what you all cared about to get a chance to play on your field…”

Another thing that I loved about Isembard is that he starts off being someone who doesn’t ‘see’ class. He thinks he’s being unbiased, but instead he’s missing significant context. However, once this is pointed out to him as a problem, he immediately recognises that he needs to fix it.

“I see. Or rather, I’m sure I don’t. But I would like to learn what you’re seeing. What you know that […] I’ve been ignoring.”

There are also a lot of academic politics in this book, and so many conversations around teaching and learning and the minutiae of running a school and dealing with the various excitements that students will inevitably provide. This, especially when put beside the preoccupation with class, is rather reminiscent of Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, and there are one or two scenes which felt like nods to Sayers. Isembard’s combination of protectiveness and profound respect for Thesan, and the way he uses ‘Magistra’ as a term of endearment reminded me a little of Peter and Harriet. But the feel of the book is very different – in Gaudy Night the main action happens around and to Harriet, whereas in Eclipse, as I said, I always had the sense that there were things going on just off-stage which I was not seeing. There is no great climactic moment, either – Isembard and Thesan investigate things, talk about things, argue things, but they do not, ultimately get to decide on the outcomes of the student shenanigans or of the academic politics. They don’t have that kind of authority. What they do get to decide on is their own, personal, paths, and how they will act to themselves and to others. It’s a very quiet book in that way.

For me this was very relaxing – the idea that one does not have to fix everything oneself? How intoxicating! – but it also felt like an unusual narrative choice, and I could see it being frustrating for others. (I would also add that, having binged my way through half of Lake’s backlist now, this is simply how her stories work. They are quiet, they centre around two good people investigating problems beyond themselves and finding out things that others might not have spotted, but more often than not, the larger problem is resolved not by the hero and heroine but by their allies.)

I really do think the very best feeling in the world is when you finish a wonderful book by a new-to-you author and then discover that she has written ten other books set in that very same world and then all you can do is make high pitched noises of delight as you gleefully click ‘Buy All’ on your Kobo.

Actually, Kobo does not have a Buy All feature, and I feel that this is an oversight, but never mind…

Eclipse did that for me. It was a book that felt as though it had been designed precisely for me, from the thoughtful worldbuilding to the tenderness of the romance, from the teachers and students and friends that made up the rest of the story’s cast, to the astronomy metaphors and, yes, even the faculty politics. And then there was the description of the eclipse itself, and the feeling of magic gathering in the air as the light changes and the sun disappears just made me shiver with delight.

I loved it.

I can’t believe I didn’t manage to work a ‘Total eclipse of the heart’ joke into this review, but here, have a total eclipse anyway

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