Briony is the youngest daughter of an old and noble family, House Tenebrae, in the kingdom of Tiralaen. When she’s just a little girl, the old king dies, apparently murdered using magic by his oldest son and heir, Prince Elyan. Because Elyan is a mage, he’s exiled from Tiralaen in an execution-style ceremony to another plane and an ancient prison for mages from which none ever return: Asperfell.
This event kicks off a change in Tiralaen. Where before mage and non-mage had lived alongside one another, now the new king, Elyan’s younger brother Keric, kindles fear and hatred of those who can use magic. As the years pass, King Keric’s reign becomes more and more fascist.
Briony, growing up away from court, is determined that one day soon she’ll join the secret rebellion against the king alongside her father and her friend Cyprias. Briony does eventually become embroiled in the fight against King Keric, but in a way she never expected.
Familiar fantasy tropes
I can’t talk any more about Asperfell without spoiling at least some of the surprises—although surprise might be too generous, given the title of the book. Of course Briony is herself a mage, her magic bound as a child to keep her safe from Keric’s regime and she herself never told of it. Of course it all goes wrong and Briony is captured by the king’s men. And, of course, Briony does end up at Asperfell about a third of the way into the book.
So far, so tropey. Jamie Thomas leans into the elements most western fantasy readers will be familiar with. The setting is your standard imaginary medieval Europe with added magic. Briony herself is a very typical innocent but determined ingenue sort of heroine, constantly shocked—shocked!—at everything from horrific injustice to a social snub. Prince Elyan, when we meet him, is tall, dark, and brooding, slowly opening up to Briony over her time at Asperfell to reveal a heart of gold.
Don’t get me wrong, I love a good trope well deployed. The well-worn fantasy Europe-that-never-was is a fun playground to mess around in. For the most part I enjoyed the familiarity of it—except for the rampant sexism and classism all through this book.
Pride and lots of prejudice
Asperfell is a book about prejudice. From the very beginning, Briony Tenebrae’s life is made claustrophobic by sexism. She’s constrained at every turn. She’s a wild kid, fascinated by tales of blood and gore, always hungry, always untidy, and desperate for magic. But she’s put in a dress and taught to curtsey and to embroider, and that’s that.
Keric’s crusade against mages whips the people of Tiralaen into a xenophobic froth, and they inform on their neighbours, daub mage’s doors with graffiti, and beat up immigrants to Tiralaen from other nations where magery is prized instead of hated.
When Briony gets to Asperfell, it’s the class system that’s thrown into stark relief. Even in this other world, where there are no rules, where wealth can’t help you and magical power is the only real defining factor, nobles still care about finery and dances while the lower class inmates work the garden and clean the castle. Briony, assigned to the garden despite her status, explicitly thinks to herself it’s ridiculous to care about the way things were in Tiralaen now they’re in Asperfell.
And woven throughout the story, cropping up like an unpleasant smell every now and again, is rather a lot of sexual assault of women. In such a tame fantasy world, this jarred me whenever it happened—and it doesn’t trigger me the way it could do for others. If you’re planning on reading Asperfell and this is a thing for you, beware.
Tiralaen, and by extension Asperfell, is riven with inequality and injustice, and Briony’s eyes are opened to it over the course of the book. Mostly. For some reason, though Briony can see the unfairness in how mages and the poor are treated, the sexism goes uncommented on.
Thomas’ world is populated with characters so odd and extreme they might be caricatures—from the toad-like Walfrey, a low class woman whose depiction I actually didn’t enjoy at all, to Mistress Philomena, the sour, schoolmarm-ish quartermaster of Asperfell. Her settings too are fantastical: Orwynd, the Tenebraes’ ancient estate, surrounded by the dark and haunted Morwood, and Asperfell itself, the treacherous castle ringed by animate statues, with a great black oak at its heart. It all reminded me of a Tim Burton creation, or a toned-down Gormenghast.
A difficult book
Personally, I found Asperfell difficult to get through. The prose was fussy and mannered, not to mention badly in need of a proofread which I hope it got before its release. Briony was frustratingly short-sighted at times. The romance with Prince Elyan was predictable—not necessarily a bad thing—but somehow also inexplicable.
Elyan spends much of his time with Briony being a patronising, bullying dickhead to her, a woman who just lost everything she ever knew and everyone she ever loved. Banter is one thing, but this was not it. I know other romance readers are into love interests who are mean and angry all the time. But I am not one of those people.
The hardest part for me was being in Briony’s shoes. (This isn’t necessarily a criticism.) All her life, Briony is patronised, condescended to, and kept in the dark about things that shape her existence. Even when she gets to Asperfell, she’s treated like a child: because she has no experience with her own magic, she has to be escorted about, taught basic magic lessons like a ten year old, and gets laughed at and threatened. She even has a page of erotic poetry whisked away from her as if she were a naughty schoolchild instead of a 20 year old woman.
I desperately wanted Briony to explode, shedding her chains and rising like a phoenix in the height of her power. But Briony has one gear, and that is earnest determination. I can’t remember if she ever gets angry. She does get her badass moment, but for me she didn’t rise up so much as get dragged along.
Asperfell is the beginning of a series, and Briony’s story isn’t over. But I won’t be picking up whatever comes next. I was relieved to escape Asperfell and get out of Briony’s head, and I don’t fancy going back.
Asperfell is out now from Uproar Books. You can buy it online, ask for it at your local bookshop, or check it out from your local library.