mortal follies

It's been well over a year since I've posted a review here... but I'm back today to talk about a fun, slightly ridiculous, histori-magical romp of a romance: Mortal Follies by Alexis Hall! I really enjoyed Hall's breakout hit, the contemporary London-set Boyfriend Material several years ago, and so I've been eyeing his career ever since. The second book in this magical Regency series, the upcoming Confounding Oaths, had such a lovely cover and interesting summary that I immediately wanted to get caught up and read the first! And then of course, Mortal Follies, published a year ago in June, ALSO had an insanely beautiful book cover. End result: I ordered a copy even though I have literal stacks of other books on my summer reading list.  


mortal follies by alexis hall book cover
It is the year 1814 and life for a young lady of good breeding has many difficulties. There are balls to attend, fashions to follow, marriages to consider and, of course, the tiny complication of existing in a world swarming with fairy spirits, interfering deities, and actual straight-up sorcerers.

Miss Maelys Mitchelmore finds her entry into high society hindered by an irritating curse. It begins innocuously enough with her dress slowly unmaking itself over the course of an evening at a high-profile ball, a scandal she narrowly manages to escape.

However, as the curse progresses to more fatal proportions, Miss Mitchelmore must seek out aid, even if it means mixing with undesirable company. And there are few less desirable than Lady Georgianna Landrake—a brooding, alluring young woman sardonically nicknamed “the Duke of Annadale”—who may or may not have murdered her own father and brothers to inherit their fortune. If one is to believe the gossip, she might be some kind of malign enchantress. Then again, a malign enchantress might be exactly what Miss Mitchelmore needs.

With the Duke’s help, Miss Mitchelmore delves into a world of angry gods and vindictive magic, keen to unmask the perpetrator of these otherworldly attacks. But Miss Mitchelmore’s reputation is not the only thing at risk in spending time with her new ally. For the rumoured witch has her own secrets that may prove dangerous to Miss Mitchelmore’s heart—not to mention her life.


The story opens with Miss Maelys Mitchelmore, a very earnest, innocent, and goodhearted young lady of nineteen, making the rounds of society in Bath. Along with her cousin, Mr. Caesar, and flighty heiress friend Ms. Bickle, the three are making good inroads into that society… until Miss Mitchelmore is suddenly stricken with a curse. When this curse makes her dress unravel into nothingness at a ball, the Duke of Annandale, a scandalous and scorned woman of twenty-four (the Duke moniker is mocking, since rumors say she killed all of her brothers and her father by sorcery to inherit) comes to her rescue, and is dangerously charming in Miss Mitchelmore’s direction… and a fascination (and story!) is born. 

 

The most interesting and unusual thing about Mortal Follies is the world in which it is set – one full of curses, magic, and gods both old and new living alongside science and logic – but with more equality and progressive viewpoints. It feels as if the author Hall said, what if I set a lesbian romance in an alternate magical Regency era, but I also decided to mend many wrongs, and made it altogether a more welcoming and wonderful place for LGBTQ+ characters? This choice, along with others (a sprinkling of archaic language, lighthearted dialogue between characters, and the constant intervention of the supernatural) result in a frothy confection of a tale – sweet, easy to consume, and a nice escape from the everyday.

 

Within the world of the book, Hall amuses himself (and a well-read audience, if they catch the references) with an allusion-rich text. There are mentions of stories and traditions from Greek mythology and fairy tale and myth throughout, and Hall also alludes to Jane Austen (Ms. Bickle “tinging” Mr. Willoughby & Mr. Wickham, for instance) and adapts an Arthur C. Clarke quote about magic and science at another point as well. These Easter eggs will delight many readers.

 

Much of the airy and entertaining feel of the book comes down to the mythic bits interwoven in the tale (for instance, Miss Bickle is constantly suggesting unusual and dangerous fairy exploits), but also through Hall’s use of language. This can be formal and archaic at times: words like apposite, pettifoggery, and more pop up, and Miss Bickle uses several neologisms (creating the word “ting” for instance, which is analogous to the modern verb “to ship” – to want characters to engage romantically). If you can’t tell already, Miss Bickle will be a favorite character. She is a constant source of comic relief, as she always has something nonsensical to suggest, in the most charming manner possible. A frustrating friend to have at times, but marvelously loyal to Miss Mitchelmore, who can use her support given the curse she suffers under.

 

Alternatively, the love interest, Lady Georgiana Landrake, the Duke of Annandale, is not very likable: she is sarcastic, mocking, and snide to start, but also moved to be a white knight in Maelys’ awful predicament. This push-pull of wanting Maelys and responding to her, but putting her off by acting meanly and protesting that she cannot have good things because she will poison or ruin them, or that Maelys is too young or doesn’t know what she wants, comes off as condescending and callous. Contrasted with Maelys’ virtues (a strong sense of fairness, patience with friends, etc.) and slow-blossoming awareness that she is perhaps not heterosexual after all, Georgiana’s feigned indifference and insistence on her own wickedness makes everyone both confused and miserable. While it conforms neatly to the trope of Byronic and brooding heroes in the Regency genre, it is somewhat derivative here – and the reader may find themselves wondering if Maelys might've found a better object for her affections if she had looked around a bit more. Hall’s skill in mending characters’ misunderstandings does make for a satisfying romance by the end, and the story neatly makes the point that even morally gray almost-villainesses deserve love.

 

There was one very annoying element that almost ended the reading experience before it could truly get underway: the conceit of a fairy sprite narrator (in this case, Robin Goodfellow). After the fifteenth time he turned into a candle flame, or a vapor, or a shadow to spy on the characters it became tedious. The mentions of little acts of chaos, the omniscient asides that Robin provided about gods and goddesses and their foibles, and the recurring mention of getting kicked out of the fairy Courts did nominally add more magic to the story – but their repetitive nature and the constant shift between perspectives was exasperating. Beware!

 

In all, Mortal Follies is a lighthearted mashup of Regency romance and fantasy, and enjoyable in almost all aspects. Hall’s confection of a world has surprising depth at times, and will appeal to fans of the ever-growing field of romantasy.

 

Recommended for: readers who like the sound of Regency romance + curses + lighthearted fun + sapphic awakenings, and anyone in the mood for a summery, allusion-rich fantasy set in a world that isn’t as cruel or prudish as ours was in 1814.

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