PROS: Vibrant, complicated heroine; evocative description and language; well-crafted plot beats.
CONS: Unclear worldbuilding raises too many questions; execution of certain concepts need work.
BOTTOM LINE: A promising main character, good plotting and good ideas marred by a flawed execution.
Persephone Fury has a problem. Several of them, actually. In a world bound to and next door to our own, her Regency-era life is rather complicated. Her magical powers, rather than being a celebrated gift, are of a sort that are dark and threatening, enough that tisanes consumed to dull them are the order of the day. Her twin brother’s tutor is up to something, something threatening enough that Persephone is willing to pose as her brother to find out what her tutor wants. And the Season is opening soon. Persephone’s prospects are not good, and they cannot be allowed to damage the prospects of her very marriageable sister. Things get even darker and more convoluted, though, though, when the tutor’s machinations, a challenge to the ailing crown, and Persephone’s own conflicted desires and her awakening powers threaten to unmoor Persephone Fury’s life completely, and her world with it.
The strengths of This Crumbling Pageant, the first-foray into fantasy by author and screenwriter Patricia Burroughs, revolve around its heroine. Persephone is a complicated character whose life starts off as a hot mess and rapidly goes downhill from there. The dark strand of her magical nature, the questionable powers she struggles with possessing and controlling rebound with the character herself. Persephone is headstrong, a little too clever for her own good, overconfident, determined, conflicted and when needed, dauntless. She’s an excellently drawn character who nearly overwhelms the rest of the cast with her three-dimensionality and rendered complexity. This is not to say the rest of the cast are cardboard by any means, rather that Persephone outshines them all in her depiction.
The author does craft some nifty plot beats that, while not providing an innovative structure, are well fashioned and come with excellent pacing. Her background in screenwriting and the training of creating plot structure translate well to an epic fantasy novel. The novel’s emotional highs and lows have a flow and feel that excellently complements the ebb and flow of the narrative. Her romance writing background is also put to good use as well.
Unanswered questions about the worldbuilding badly marred the reading experience for me, however. The idea of a secondary world next to our own inhabited by magic using people who have withdrawn from our world is not a new one and I wondered how it would be handled. Much to my disappointment, the two-world setup refused to hold together. I had no clear sense of the secondary world’s limitations on geography or viability and couldn’t really see why Persephone’s world needed anything to do with the ordinary 19th century world at all. The relatively limited contact we see in the novel between the two worlds (aside from an early extended sequence) only reinforced this. The baggage of or world, though, falls onto the secondary world, too. The Greek religious and naming conventions of the Magi (as Persephone’s people are known) never felt consistent with our history and culture.
I wondered, as I read it, if the novel might not have been significantly stronger without this conceit being present whatsoever. If the novel was set in a secondary world with no overt connection to our own, my suspension of disbelief would have been much more easily assuaged. As it is, I never really could ever reconcile and come to terms with the world-next-door-to-Regency-England the author tries to create.
Readers not as picky as I in their focus on rigorous worldbuilding may find Persephone’s story, her strong characterization, and her plight captivating and enthralling, and may be enthused with This Crumbling Pageant, slated to be first in a trilogy. When I was able to shut aside the niggling questions that bothered me as I read it, the novel came to life. This was, for me, fitful at best and unfortunately, the weaknesses I perceive in the novel did not make it work for me overall.