2015’s The Mystic Marriage is the second volume in Heather Rose Jones’ Alpennia series.
Antuniet Chazillen has lost everything: her foolish brother has been executed for treason and her mother is dead by her own hand. Antuniet has been stripped of her aristocratic rank. Determined to restore the family honour, Antuniet flees Alpennia for Austria, there to use her alchemical skills to win back for her family the respect and position her brother cost it.
In Austria she finds a treasure of rare value, a treasure others are determined to wrest from her. She escapes from Vienna to Heidelberg, but her enemies are still close on her heels. She sees no choice but to trade her virtue for transportation to safety.
Which means returning to Alpennia…
Many aristocrats (heirs, rentiers, etc.) are drones; they would be unable to support themselves once stripped of their parasitic privileges. Not so Antuniet: she is a skilled and knowledgeable alchemist. She has the standing to take on students of her own. Even in a nation as small as Alpennia, there are openings for a teacher of the art. One patron is all she needs, one rich family to support her as she wrestles with her true work.
Any alchemist worth the title knows the name DeBroodt. The famed alchemist’s secrets were lost with his death centuries ago. Or so it seemed. In fact DeBroodt kept a journal. Antuniet found the lost tome, which had fallen by chance behind a bookcase. The journal gives her a foundation on which she can build a career of her own. It also makes her, and anyone near her, a target for Austrians determined to recover what they see as a national treasure. It turns out that her flight to Alpennia didn’t make Antuniet any safer. It has merely endangered people in Alpennia who might otherwise have been perfectly safe.
Proud Antuniet may think she is a pariah, that she has no friends not bought with her services. In fact, she could not be more wrong. Despite the role they played in her brother’s downfall (he really WAS plotting treason), neither the freshly minted Baroness Saveze nor her lover Magerit bear any ill-will towards Antuniet herself. If only Antuniet could be convinced to accept their help!
Antuniet has another friend … or shall we say admirer. Jeanne, Vicomtesse de Cherdillac, is obviously interested in the alchemist. Antuniet regards Jeanne as a mere philanderer. It’s true that the Vicomtesse is notorious for her endless infatuations and affairs. It is also true that Jeanne’s affairs are an attempt to distract herself from despair. Despair at her hopeless, sincere love for Antuniet .
Antuniet may be too proud to accept that she has friends, even a true love. Too bad for the alchemist. She most definitely has enemies. Without allies, she could end her days on the same execution ground where her brother died.
I am not especially interested in the troubles of the titled classes; some of them deserved (and deserve) the guillotine. The author manages to disarm my antipathy in a couple of ways. For one thing, the peasants don’t seem to be starving, a blessing the peasantry of contemporary nations do not enjoy. For another, the author has not written aristocratic fanfic; she does not take an uncritical view of Alpennian society.
(Which reminds me of Bujold’s take on Barrayar. Bujold shows us Barrayar at moment when that backward, unpleasant world happens to have a decent regent and a tolerable emperor, both of whom work to mitigate the injustices of the past. Thanks to authorial fiat, the system makes a better impression than it might have at other points in its history (or than it would have if Serg had taken the throne). Heather Rose Jones shows us an Alpennian society that is undeniably unjust … and that is also ruled by people who lack the compassion, the honor, of an Aral or a Cordelia.)
Like Daughter of Mystery’s Margarit and Barbara, Antuniet has been denied the privileges her rank would otherwise grant her. She’s willing to put in the hard work to get it back. Indeed, offered easy solutions, she refuses them in favour of winning the prize legitimately. This is not a story of someone who succeeds by virtue of having diligently chosen the right parents, but of someone who has to actually struggle.
As in another alternate history, The House of Shattered Wings, this secondary world is governed by physical laws quite different from ours — both magic (called “mysteries”) and functioning alchemy exist. How odd then, that history has travelled along very familiar paths . Not only does France exist, its recent history is the same as that of France in our own timeline. IMHO, this is just another instance of alternate history filing off the serial numbers rather than thinking through what would have changed in this setting.
Though there are hints that science (in this case the science of magic) is marching on. Most people in this world still see magic through theological lenses (as we learned in the previous volume), but there are intriguing hints that systematization and rationalization impend. One suspects that this world has its own scientific revolution bearing down on it. One wonders what their Maxwell will make of magic .
As is usual in stories requiring plot complication, Antuniet and Jeanne’s romance does not unfold simply and directly. No “I like you. Do you like me?” Or Betan earrings.
In this case, Antuniet is handicapped by her own poor self-image and the unjustly negative view she has of Jeanne. There is also the fact that Alpennian women are discouraged from falling in love with each other … or even considering the possibility that they might do so. (Though Antuniet does at least know that Baroness Saveze and Magerit are a happy couple.) I could have done without the complications, but they were at least plausible. (I should perhaps add that being hunted by armed robbers  and being suspected of treason (like her brother) are also plausible distractions.)
The book runs in some well-worn grooves, but it is competently plotted and written. The characters are appealing; the suspense kept me turning pages. Also, there is kissing. A fine amusement.
The Mystic Marriage is available here.
1: Best not to think too much about what life is like for POOR Alpennian lesbians and gays. If you are rich, you can be eccentric, Without money, you are probably ostracized, exiled, or executed. Alpennians do love their death penalties.
2: “Just like our universe, except for this one thing that makes it completely not like our universe” is very disconcerting to me, because I’m logical.
3: I suppose it’s possible that one member of the small community of alchemists and magically adept in Alpennia will turn out to be the Maxwell of Magic. In fact, Antuniet might be the one. However, our own history suggests that pocket kingdoms have a dismal record when it comes to contributing to scientific progress (though perhaps the Scottish Enlightenment might be considered a disproof). Probably because you need a large enough community to provide the intellectual critical mass.
(I know what you’re going to say
but Kokintz was not actually from Grand Fenwick.)
4: Robbery posed no distraction to ME, except immediately after I got hit in the head. But as I said earlier, I’m logical.