Julia isn’t a witch, but she does have a unique ability: she can be unseen at will. The talent doesn’t render her invisible, exactly, so much as give her the power to avoid being perceived. It’s a dangerous skill to posses in a city where magic has been criminalized and witches are regularly drowned in public Cleansings. It is, however, very useful when you are a thief, con artist, and spy-for-hire.
Posing as a scullery maid in the manor of a wealthy but peculiar older woman, Julia is tasked with gathering information for a mysterious client. She reports back on the strange comings and goings of the house’s occupants: the eccentric professor with a curious library; his handsome and earnest young assistant; the lady of the house, who spends most of the day resting in bed but suffers from no particular illness; and the oddly nervous man in the basement whose door locks from the outside. When a new guest arrives – a young woman with extraordinary skills of her own and a baby in tow – Julia finds herself caught in an epic battle of post-revolutionary politics and entangled in an ancient power struggle she is only just beginning to understand.
The real richness here is in the character development of Julia herself. Orphaned at a young age after her mother is executed for being a witch, 16-year-old Julia has had to be tough to survive. Luckily, she is taken in and educated by a makeshift gang of petty criminals with hearts of gold. Her de facto family provides genuine fondness and a roof over her head, but not the deep, soothing love of a mother. Julia is a strong-willed and unsentimental heroine, but it is only when she learns that vulnerability is not necessarily a liability that she reaches her full power and potential.
Vancouver native Catherine Egan’s new series opens with a book that tells an edifying standalone story while leaving just the right amount of loose ends to be tied up in future instalments. Readers are dropped into a richly built world that nods to steampunk and incorporates elements of Victorian and Puritan life while wisely remaining uncommitted to any one reality. The intricacies of this world’s magic are interesting enough: witches are able to control the actions of people and objects by writing out their desires, but they cannot, for example, fabricate items out of thin air. Magic also smells of destruction. The particular olfactory shade changes with the practitioner – Julia’s mother’s magic smelled of cardamom, another witch’s of rotting flowers. The mechanics are never totally spelled out, and the rules are blurry but satisfyingly logical.
Julia Vanishes shines when its fantasy world unpacks the complications and contradictions of ethics and morality, their roles in religion, mythology, government, and society, and what, in the end, makes a person good. Villains are sympathetic, heroes are questionable; enemies become allies and then enemies again; redemption is both strived for and scoffed at. Often, “right” and “wrong” don’t match up with “good” and “evil,” and nobody falls only to one side, least of all Julia.
Julia Vanishes is thrilling, fun and awfully hard to put down. Good for fantasy fans, but also a great entry for those new to the genre.