I didn’t think Olivia Waite could top her first f/f historical, The Lady’s Guide To Celestial Mechanics. I was wrong. SO wrong. I adored Lucy and Lady Moth from Celestial Mechanics – but I LOVE Agatha and Penelope with a fierce passion I haven’t felt for historical romance characters in a long time. Things I love about this book:
Big The Grumpy One/The Sunshine One energy. My absolute favorite trope-y pairing is the unutterable grump who is utterly baffled by their own tendency to fall wildly in love with somebody who has a tendency to flit happily around in meadows – in Penelope’s case, LITERALLY MEADOWS, because she tends bees! This pairing is basically written for me. Agatha’s utter confusion at the way she wants to be AROUND SOMEBODY? All the time??? And doesn’t resent them being so dang happy???? UGH, FEELINGS.
Bees. Frankly the bees are a beloved minor character here, as they should be, and the care that has gone into the description of tending bees at a period when science and natural history was undergoing leaps and bounds of knowledge is breathtaking and deeply rewarding. Plus there is a great deal of tromping down country paths, which is essentially my favorite wildly unrealistic personal fantasy. Also, BEE WEAPONRY.
Historical setting. I’m so used to dukes swanning gaily around ignoring what’s going on in the lower classes even while they marry housemaids and prostitutes with absolutely no thought to their peers that finding a historical romance firmly settled in the middle class is beyond delightful. And even better, this particular one is set during a time of serious civil unrest, which forms a central part of the storyline without seeming like set dressing. Watching the characters navigate the way their world is changing is all the more powerful because their world really IS changing; everything from Penelope’s beekeeping to Agatha’s printing press is deeply impacted by the way that their society is shifting in ways both social and scientific, which makes the civil change central to their storyline. But the characters are so strong, and the romance so well-crafted, that this resists the urge to turn into a historical novel and stays firmly a romance, with the love developing between the protagonists the central storyline.
Parenthood – specifically, parenting in a time of intense social change. This one hits close to home for me. Agatha undergoes her own personal shift; her character arc encompasses growing into herself as a reluctant agent of revolution, then a willing activist for change. But she’s hit hard by the realization that as she’s tried to demonstrate doing what is right to the young people for whom she is responsible, they have – believe it or not – actually listened. And believed what she was saying, to the point that it takes them in a different direction than she ever anticipated, and she then has to sit down with herself and figure out if she’s really walking her own talk, so to speak. This is something that so many of us who are parenting during this time of significant cultural change are facing; if we’re doing it right, we’re raising our kids to be better. And then when they demonstrate it, we’re hit by our own inherited bias, still crawling along in our hindbrains influencing our reflexive reactions. It’s the double whammy of realizing that you can be as well-meaning as you want, but without some self-awareness, you might not be reaching your full potential.
Queer community. This is probably the best thing about this book, and what makes me clutch it to my bosom in weepy delight. The genuine queer community that Agatha finds with Penelope is so perfect, so warm, so quiet, and so REAL. I can’t offer spoilers here, because the community they find features in a lot of important plot points, but I just want to dive in and roll around in the realness of Agatha’s startlement when she discovers that in addition to falling in love, she’s managed to find a community that she’s always longed for without knowing it was possible. People who understand her, who realize what it means to be queer in the context of their society – in more than one way, and in ways that include hiding, openness, and even allyship, and who will do anything to support their community. I JUST LOVE IT OK.
Creative – and realistic – HEAs. Another thing that has given me joy in both this book and the first in the series is the way the characters find ways to bind themselves together with permanence in a society that doesn’t allow them to legally marry. It is a delightfully technical detail that really makes the happily-ever-after feel real, and I’m so glad the author took the time to weave it in. (And I really love the way that this book’s ending builds on the choices that were made in this vein in the previous book, but I can’t elaborate without spoilers!)
I loved it, you’ll love it, go read it. I can’t wait for more.