One for sorrow,
Two for joy,
Three for a girl,
Four for a boy,
Five for silver,
Six for gold,
Seven for a secret never to be told.
Eight for a wish
Nine for a kiss
Ten for a bird that you won’t want to miss.
When I was about fifteen, I was obsessed–utterly obsessed–with the magpie rhyme. I don’t remember where I first heard it: we don’t have magpies of the sort it references in this country (Australian magpies are ubiquitous but unrelated to their European namesakes), so it’s not really A Thing kids sing here. Wherever I picked it up from, I became so enamoured with it I based an entire Vampire: the Masquerade chronicle around it, and that was Srs Bizness back in those days.
Since then, I’ve had a soft spot for any other media that happens to feature the rhyme, from Discworld to The Secret World. Thus did I take finding the two most common versions reprinted in the front of KJ Charles‘ The Magpie Lord to be a good omen (two being for joy, after all).
The first in the A Charm of Magpie series, The Magpie Lord is a historic m/m paranormal following the exploits of Lord Crane (a.k.a. Lucien Vaudrey), newly returned to England after twenty years exile in China. Crane is a cad and a rake, a self-described “Shanghai Joe” more used to roughing it on the docks than sipping tea with European gentry. Crane has been dragged back to his family estate after the apparent suicides of his father and brother, and wants nothing more than to tidy up and get himself–and his manservant, Merrick–on the first boat back east. As is the way of novels, however, these plans are interrupted when Crane appears to fall victim to a magical curse; the same one that drove his family to kill themselves.
I never met anyone who didn’t want to die as much as you don’t.
–Merrick sums up Crane (loc. 62).
Enter sorcerer Stephen Day, employed to break said curse. Day is a professional, luckily for Crane, given Day’s past history with Crane’s monstrous brother and callous father. Luckily for Day, meanwhile, Crane may be a hedonistic brat but he doesn’t inherit the family sadism. Following the trail of the curse takes Crane, Day, and Merrick out to Crane’s family estate, a bitter place just as cursed as his family. There’s bad magic afoot, sexual tension in the air, and an entire population of hostile locals to win over. Hopefully quickly. Before Crane is choked to death on his own hair. Again.
The Magpie Lord is a twisting, supernatural mystery, suffused with an oppressive ominousness of place that contrasts sharply to the brightness of its main protagonists. This is largely a book about good people struggling to repair the hurts done by bad ones, and Charles draws several very cutting parallels between, in particular, the banal and vicious–yet tolerated–evil of Crane’s rapacious brother versus Crane’s own supposed, and exile-worthy, “sexual deviancy”. The relationship between Crane and Day is also engaging, and sets the novel’s themes of reconciliation early on. In some respects it’s a fairly standard Cinderella story–handsome Lord versus social outcast, you know the drill–but I gotta be honest; this is legit like one of my favourite romance tropes eva, so I’m hardly complaining.
Theres no good doing the right thing unless you stop people doing the wrong thing.
–laying down some morals of the day (loc. 2453)
I do admit that it took me a little while to really get into The Magpie Lord. It’s possible I’m just not really used to the genre, but I found some of the context confusing for the first quarter or so (Crane has too many names!), and the book’s in medias res opening mean Crane and Day are introduced first as somewhat standoffish and unlikable. It takes until well into the second act for the pair to really start warming up, both to each other and the reader. I’m not sure if this is intentional or not–if it is, it’s also potentially a sly reference to Crane’s background–but it’s a literary trope I’m not particularly fond of wherever it appears, so… YMMV. Still, I’m really glad I stuck with the book, because by the time the dénouement rolled around I was madly flipping pages, trying to second-guess the foreshadowing and pick the identity of the antagonists before the reveal (I didn’t get it, for the record). Also, without spoiling too much, I have to say the villains happen to use my favourite villain trope of all time (small spoilers at the link), which left me grinning like a loon.
All in all, The Magpie Lord was a tense and enjoyable read–and I’ve already preordered the sequel–though it does heavily use suicide, self-harm, and rape as plot elements, meaning it won’t be for everyone.