“Many great things have been accomplished by the careful combination of keen minds and ardent spirits.” ― G.D. Falksen
Author: Langley Hyde
Publisher: Blind Eye Books
Pages/Word Count: 322 Pages
Rating: 4 Stars
Blurb: Born to privilege, gifted in languages and spells, Neil Franklin has planned his brilliant future—from academic accolades to a proper marriage—and is intent upon upholding his family name and honor. The sudden death of his parents shatters all of that, leaving Neil and his younger sister beggared and orphaned.
When Neil’s estranged uncle offers him a bargain that will save him and his sister from debtor’s prison or exile, Neil eagerly agrees. Handing over the family grimoire as collateral for their debt, Neil devotes himself to working as a teacher for wayward youths at a charity school high in the clouds.
But Highfell Hall is not the charity Neil imagines it to be and the young men there aren’t training for the dull lives of city clerks. Amidst the roaring engines and within the icy stone halls, machinations and curious devices are at work. And one man, the rough and enigmatic Leofa, holds the key to the desire that Neil has fled from all his life and a magic as dangerous as treason.
Review: I cut my steampunk teeth a handful of years ago on Gail Carriger’s paranormal/steampunk novel Soulless. Being the first, as well as a book I adored, it’s become the measuring stick against which I’ve compared all steampunk since. There’s nothing I love more than reading a historical/Alt U story filled with the incongruity of technology in a time and place that otherwise isn’t modernized, and the more abundant and inventive the steam powered, clockwork gizmos and gadgets, the better, as far as I’m concerned. It’s that wealth of imagination I love, alongside the characters, plots, and prose, that make it one of my favorite sub-genres, and I wish there were more of it in the M/M genre. I must say, Langley Hyde’s Highfell Grimoires is a welcome addition that helps fills that need.
If there were any one thing I’d say I wished there’d been more of in this story, it’s that the sense of time was slightly too vague to make the sense of place and the creative imagery the author weaved into the story a truly effective contrast. I missed that jarring presence of steam powered vehicles amongst the horse drawn carriages that makes a steampunk world all the more fantastical, but having said that, I want to give the author full credit for making the world she did create one that was filled with not only great imagination, but magic and suspense and was told by characters I was glad to spend time with. Much of the story doesn’t even take place on the ground but high in the upper atmosphere where ice is the norm and aether makes magic possible, so there was no little amount of inspiration that went into this plot.
A charity school filled with misfits and by-blows of the aristocracy seemed a worthy school for the privileged Neil Franklin to work off his deceased parents’ debts, and his relationship with Leofa, a man who would’ve been well below Neil’s station had circumstances not greatly altered his social standing, developed slowly from their close proximity and a growing suspicion that things at Highfell weren’t nearly as charitable as Neil was led to believe. He not only discovers the school has run afoul of the law but also discovers the family that oversees Highfell is carrying on those legal activities under the direction and with full knowledge of his uncle. Unlocking secrets of stolen grimoires, family heirlooms and symbols of great power, an offense punishable by death, made for great action when the time came for Neil and Leofa to take down the Nobbsnipes, the overseers of the school, and most especially Roger, the son, who’s a particularly repugnant twit who made rooting for Neil, Leofa, and the boys all the more satisfying.
Langley Hyde’s talent for telling an engaging story can’t be argued. This school, filled with orphans and cast-offs and those whose families believed they were giving the children a chance at a better life, was a bit like Oliver Twist with a fantasy spin—these boys are stuck in a school where their only option is to obey the rules or risk physical punishment for defying the establishment, but while they paid for Roger’s pretentious arrogance, I couldn’t help but love that fighting spirit and watching them break those rules.
The grimoires, the floating schools, Neil’s work to make unraveling spells possible without the use of aether, and watching the good guys triumph over injustice all came together to make for one very entertaining read. If you’re a fan of Alt U/Fantasy, I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend reading Highfell Grimoires.