ARC Review: The Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas

The Thief on the Winged HorseThe Thief on the Winged Horse by Kate Mascarenhas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Kendrick family have run their world-famous doll-making business in near isolation since the early 1800s. Only family members are permitted to work for the firm, and only the men know the closely guarded secrets of the workshop. Because Kendricks’ dolls aren’t coveted for the craftsmanship alone. Each doll has a specific emotion laid on it by its maker. A magic that can make the beholder feel Bucolic Bliss, Heady Optimism or even Consuming Paranoia at a single touch.

Persephone Kendrick longs to break tradition and learn the doll-makers craft, but instead must fulfill a woman’s role, working on the shop floor. When a handsome stranger arrives claiming doll-making talent and a blood tie to the family, she sees a chance to grasp all she desires.

But then, one night, the family’s most valuable doll is stolen. Only someone with knowledge of magic could have taken her. Only a Kendrick could have committed this crime…

Warnings: parental abuse, alcoholism, magical manipulation, sex scenes

Note: This book is not YA; it is adult fiction, but can be taken as new adult

Chronicling the current generation of the Kendrick’s magic doll-making business, this story comes to us through three main characters – Persephone, the niece of the current head of the family, Conrad; Hedwig, one of the many cousins, and Conrad’s housekeeper/right-hand; Larkin, a newcomer to the family. The Kendricks’ doll workshop is a family business, and only employs descendants of the four sisters’ who founded it, so that their sorcery can be kept secret; Larkin, who claims to be from Jemima Ramsay, who never had an heir, is accepted into the workshop because of his skills, but isn’t being taught the sorcery that is applied to the dolls. Persephone, who has a desire to become a Sorcerer, has been repeatedly shot down since the day she came of age, because she is a woman and deemed unfit to handle the magic that imbues enchantments (that evoke certain feelings) into the dolls. Hedwig has no interest in the magic – she just wants to make money, and cement her position at Conrad’s side.

The main mystery of the book is the theft of the workshop’s most precious doll – the Paid Mourner – which was made by one of the founding sisters herself, and the enchantments laid upon her are a well-kept secret only passed down to heirs. She is also housed in a strong cage that holds a powerful enchantment of paranoia that most people can’t handle. While this is the core of the book, plot-wise it circles around the family’s dynamics and the stifling traditions. The world-building of this book is quite interesting – there is a fae element, but it has a darker, not whimsical, tone. The family also lives on this fictional island in Oxford, an eyot that has the workshop as well as residents of the family all living on it under the control of Conrad Kendrick. The people living on it have become used to him dictating their life, but that doesn’t mean they are happy about it.

Persephone, particularly, is resentful of the fact that she is being dissuaded from being a Sorcerer just because of her gender, but she also remains on the eyot because her father has been keeping her birthright enchantment from her. Larkin, who came her specifically to learn their sorcery, is frustrated with the lack of any instruction in that regard; moreover, everyone else has been dissuaded from telling him how the enchantments are applied. Hedwig is suspicious about Larkin’s entry to the family, while she also juggles the finicky Conrad, who has a long-standing feud with his twin, Briar (Persephone’s father). As the authorities investigate the theft, and Conrad takes a leave, she is left to handle their affairs, but also face the dissension of the cousins who are inconvenienced by the investigation. Persephone and Larkin find common ground in their shared dissatisfaction with the status quo, and commence a relationship where they teach what they know to each other; Persephone is aware that once she hands him the secret of the enchantment, he might no longer be her friend, though.

For me, the book worked well for the mystery and the setting – I particularly liked how the magic works here. There were themes of tradition versus innovation, about how much of tradition is about preserving control than preserving the art that is passed down as an inheritance in the family. Persephone’s personal arc about struggling against the sexism of her family is played out well with respect to the decisions she makes. In contrast, Hedwig’s personal arc seems to fizzle out, though she does get what she wants finally, so I guess it works. Larkin’s story is, well, complicated – I don’t know how I still feel about his characterization. I felt there was an attempt to contextualize toxic masculinity and how men are told to not have emotions with his fascination for the enchanted dolls, but it doesn’t come across that well when his backstory is revealed. It does, however, make a point with how the ones who are most into the dolls are men. The relationships between the characters in this book, as a whole, felt quite depressing, too. Which makes the cover quite a contradiction – the cover seems to point towards a whimsical vibe, but the book is quite definitely not.

Overall, a good read, but like don’t be fooled by the pastel-y cover.

Is it diverse? queer main characters, one of them being biracial (Japanese-British) and fat; PoC secondary character; written by a biracial author

Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from Head of Zeus, via Netgalley.

View all my reviews

Buy links

The Book Depository | Wordery

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