The Conjuror Girl is a new trilogy from steampunk author Stephen Palmer. It may be slightly more accurate to describe it as a really big book in three volumes and for that reason I’m reviewing the set together.
The story centres round an orphan girl living in an alternate late Victorian setting. She’s Monique in the first book, and changes her name to Monica in an attempt to redefine herself in book 2. In writing this tale, Stephen has drawn heavily on the harsh realities of life for vulnerable children. Class-based inequalities, gender inequality, and the historic lack of opportunity for girls and women are strong themes in these books. Rather unusually, Stephen explores the impact of internalising these kinds of issues. We see a lot of stories about plucky girls defying the norms of their times, but Monica is impacted in her sense of self by classism and sexism while trying to resist it, and I think this is really well explored.
There are several other key themes across the books, and they’re inter-related. One is selfishness, and how we relate to the world if we let selfishness dominate. The person who wants to shape the world inline with their own preferences is inevitably at risk of being out of touch and disconnected from reality. But at the same time, the person who wants to create and to change things has to enter that territory. The antidote to this lies in friendship, and in supporting each other. Stephen’s characters depend on reflecting truths back to each other, keeping each other grounded in a sense of self that includes other people’s perceptions. No one is allowed to drift off in a cloud of their own ego. It’s an interesting commentary on relationship and mental health and how vital it is that we are honest with each other.
This is a series with strong steampunk elements and a fair amount of the charmingly fantastical. In this version of history, Paris was lost to monumental flooding caused by a magician. French refugees live in the UK. Our central character knows little of these things and is slowly piecing together how her world works and trying to figure out where she fits. In a world where allegedly only men can be magicians, a conjour girl is going to have challenges. This isn’t your usual magic school narrative, as Monica mostly has to learn on the run and by making things up as she goes along.
The main character is in her mid teens. It would be a suitable read for a teen, but I think the assumed reader is an adult. It doesn’t read like YA to me, although that’s not a genre I’m massively up to speed with.
The plot is highly engaging and keeps moving at a good pace throughout, providing surprises aplenty. The fantastical elements are original and its easy to suspend your disbelief and go along with them. The alternate Victorian England Stephen offers is rich with strange and curious things and is a pleasing place to spend time. The books run on from each other, so spare yourself some frustration and buy all three at once.