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Tuesday, January 10, 2023

SPFBO Finalist review: Scales & Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis

 


AUTHOR INFO: Stephanie Burgis grew up in America but now lives in Wales with her husband (fellow writer Patrick Samphire), their two young sons, and their extremely vocal tabby cat. In between those two points, she spent time playing in orchestras, studying music history in Vienna, and editing the website of an opera company in Leeds. 

She writes fun, funny MG fantasy adventures for kids and wildly romantic historical fantasy novels for adults.

You can keep up with her new releases, read exclusive short stories and get sneak peeks at upcoming works by signing up to her newsletter: www.stephanieburgis.com/newsletter

Publisher: Self-published (October 4, 2021) Page Count: 382 Cover art: Ravven

JENILE

This is my first-time reading Stephanie Burgess, even though she has been on my radar for several years. Scales and Sensibility, reminded me a bit of Tessa Dare but with dragons- it’s a sweet, light, feel-good story.

*

Elinor Tregarth is the sensible one of her sisters. She is the poor relation in a nearly Cinderella-type position in her cousin’s home, relying on their goodwill to keep her off the streets, after the death of her parents. 

But Elinor has had it up to her eyeballs with the mistreatment of her cousin Penelope’s dragon- Sir Jessamyn, and does a very unsensible thing, and runs off with the poor beast. 

*

What starts as a deceptively simple plot gets more chaotic with each turn, as Elinor, juggles her disguise as the renowned and highly sought-after Mrs. De Lacey, with the growing number of complications that arise over the course of the book. Leaving us to wondering, when the dragon poop finally hits the fan, how she could possibly ever come out of this on top, and win the guy in the end.

*

There is some handwavyness required here, as all the various little plots do come together like the end-reveal in a Miss Marple novel. But the story doesn’t take itself seriously enough to let the little questions along the way matter. You just roll with the fun, and enjoy the journey. 

This most definitely has a romance story set-up from the insta-love, to the hints of who will have books next. I liked the fairy tale-feeling touch to the magic, which I personally think always lends well to any romance novel because in my head, not to sound cynical or anything but they all kind of fit in that genre anyway. Or, at least, the HEA ones I prefer, do. 

I think with the lightness on the magic and fantasy aspects- which are as much an accessory to the story as the dragons are to the elite- that Scales and Sensibility makes for a great primer to see if fantasy is something you’d enjoy. I looked for this sort of thing in romance for years, so it’s nice to see so much more available in this cross-genre than there was years ago.

The fantasy lover in me- wanted a little more about the dragons and magic, but the romance reader in me- appreciated the fun.


JONATHAN

Placed in her aunt’s house after her parents died, Elinor Tregarth’s dull life consists of dealing with her snotty cousin Penelope and overbearing uncle … until the day she absconds with Penelope’s shoulder dragon. Then Elinor’s troubles really begin.

Scales is billed as a “Regency rom-com” and it definitely fits that billing, with the addition of small dragons which have become expensive fashion accessories for the well-to-do ladies of the day. Penelope’s Elinor’s dragon, Sir Jessamyn, also serves as the MacGuffin of the storyline, injecting a soft system of magic into the setting, that affects Elinor in unforeseen ways. The fantasy elements of the story are relatively light; I’d call this a “fantasy romance” rather than a “romantic fantasy,” if that makes sense.

First, the high points. I’d say the protagonist, Elinor, is easy to like and get on with. She’s in a bad situation, not of her making, and trying to make the best of it. Her early move to grab Sir Jessyman and bail shows some grit and strength of character. The other principle character, Benedict Hawkins—the young nobleman coming to court for Penelope’s hand—serves as a suitable foil and love interest for Elinor. The prose in Scales is brisk and clean, without many wasted words and the plot maintains a steady clip, with lots of happenings packed into a slim space. This was a book that read faster than its three-hundred pages. Finally, I’ll say the depicted setting (based on other similarly-set books I’ve read) does an excellent job on capturing the customs and mores of the time period, nailing the Regency flavor and atmosphere.

That was also the rub for me, unfortunately, as—having tried several over the years—I am not at all a fan of Regency books. The focus on gossip, fashion, debutante balls, and high society of the shiftless, idle nobility is not really my bag, and that society is front and center here. Aside from the two main characters (and the dragon), most of the other players are insufferable in a variety of ways. Despite displaying such a strong opening (and she finishes decently), Elinor spends the middle of the book careening from one disaster/blackmail plot to another, being driven by the plot (rather than the other way around) and displaying little of her own agency … and in the end is only rescued by a deus ex machina plot device (the arrival of someone powerful to un-sticky her mess). And while I understand romance/rom-com have a certain formulaic demand for a “happily-ever-after” ending, I pretty much predicted the major events of the plot from about the 25% point onward, which made me impatient to finish.

None of that is to say Scales is a bad book. But it was not the book for me.

I’d recommend it to readers who want some fantasy with their romance, enjoy female protagonists, and fans of Regency settings.

ŁUKASZ

I don’t read a lot of romance or cozy fantasy. I make exceptions, but I wouldn’t have picked this book if I weren’t reading/judging it for SPFBO. Many readers will find it delightful, so I urge anyone looking for something humorous and lighthearted to give it a shot and ignore my rating.

Burgis writes with ease and clarity, and I like that. I found her characters likable and endearing in their naivete. Elinor Tregarth is a practical young woman who needs to clean up the messes left by her spoilt cousin, Penelope. She takes care (euphemism for “kidnapping”) of Sir Jessamyn Carnavaron Artos, Penelope’s pet dragon. She also falls in love with Benedict Hawkins, an easy-going and kind-hearted fortune hunter.

Sounds sweet? Because it is :)

Now, I recognize that romance and regency books need to follow certain storytelling beats to appeal to a broader audience. I'm sure Stephanie Burgis knows and understands her audience. The story is well-written and reasonably well-paced. Sadly, I found the sweetness tiring and magical adventures lackluster, and the resolution predictable.

Fans of romance, regency, and books that make you all comfortable and cozy, should give it a try. 

MICHAEL

The odds were stacked against this one as it’s pretty much everything I don’t look for in a fantasy novel. That being teenagers, romance, real-world setting, cute dragons, a character who tells us how sensible she is while doing things that are clearly not sensible. And romance. And teenagers. 

Okay, it’s possible I’m a tad grumpy. 

But here’s the thing: this book was really well done. Despite being almost everything I dislike, I ripped through it in a day or two. It was well-written and paced. I enjoyed the characters and the story. 

And so, while it isn’t the kind of book I would reach for, for me this was a solid 8/10.

OFFICIAL SPFBO SCORE




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