Nathan’s review of Scales and Sensibility by Stephanie Burgis
I kind of feel like I have to review this book twice to really express my experiences with it and to make sure that this book gets into the hands of the right readers.
So, first let me start by saying that I really enjoyed this book and had a really great time with it. It’s fun, it’s frothy, and it moves at a really nice clip as things comically spiral out of control for our main character Elinor.
I want to follow that up by saying that I am definitely not the target audience for this book. While I do enjoy a good episode of Bridgerton, I usually don’t read romance books. Therefore, I hope that two things come across in this review. First, I don’t really know much about the romance or romantic fantasy genres, so you might want to find a reviewer who better understands the tropes and conventions of the genre if you are highly experienced in romance (although if, like me, you have been looking at this book because it is a finalist in the SPFBO 8 competition but also dislike romance, hopefully this review will be helpful!).
When I decided to pick this book up, I was having a really bad day. My anxiety was spiking, I was feeling overwhelmed, and the mental health was not just in the best place. I decided that I needed to take care of me for an afternoon and evening. So I grabbed my comfiest blanket, a cup of steaming tea, and sat down with Scales and Sensibility. I didn’t know what to expect, but the description sounded like the perfect fun and light read I needed at that moment.
And it was.
I lost myself in the hijinks of mistaken identities, family scheming, marriage proposals, huge debts, petty crimes, and social niceties. I rooted for Elinor and Benedict. I hated Penelope, her father, and her gaggle of friends. I overly-identified with Aubrey’s desire to just read books and do research. I laughed and I marveled. So, I guess above all I want to thank Stephanie Burgis for giving me this Regency rom-com to rescue by day, and for giving me a salve that I didn’t even know I really needed.
There are a few things to note about the book. These are not necessarily criticisms, but just some hangups/expectations that I had to get past because of my personal preferences as a reader (and someone who isn’t really into romance before this!).
My biggest initial hangup with this book was the real lack of fantasy elements. Yes, the core premise does require some kind of magic in order to kickstart the plot of mistaken identity, but outside of that the heavily promoted dragons and magic do not really play all that big of a role. Outside of one small piece of magic, the rest of the book could easily be filed in the Historical Fiction genre. Therefore, anyone who is looking for a fantasy romance with the emphasis on the fantasy should look elsewhere; the magic sparks the plot and the mishaps, but this is not a high/epic fantasy by any means.
The other element that I had to get past (and enjoyed the book once I actually started vibing with it!) is that this is a book that relishes in its genre. There are a lot of the stereotypical romance tropes here – the evil sibling, insta-love, lost fortunes, and social climbers. This book doesn’t revolutionize the game in any significant way. Yet, as I have mentioned here many times, I just had so much with the book that I didn’t care (it probably also helped that I am relatively new to the genre and so haven’t seen these tropes that many times!).
I know this a relatively short review from me, but I don’t really have much else to say about a book. I feel that in the critical/reviewing community we are too focused on judging and upholding the intensity of “art”. But what does that even mean? Too often the stuff that is dark, challenging, and groundbreaking are the only books (or tv shows, movies, etc.) that are championed as being “worthy” or included as part of some kind of literary “canon”). e often forget that something that doesn’t have to be impenetrably difficult for us to say that it is good. Fiction doesn’t have to explore suffering and trauma to be worthy of our times; fiction doesn’t have to always have deep and meaningful themes.
There is a time and a place for those books. However, things that pull us out of our bad days, that allow us to relax after work, and to help us briefly escape into another world is where some of the magic truly lies. Maybe it says a bit too much about me, but I am more excited to jump into the Burgis’ next Regency Dragons romance book than I am to continue on with Mervyn Perke’s Gormenghast series (although, yes, Titus Groan was a personal favorite – it is just a tough read after I spent all day grading papers and writing academic journal articles).
We need to stop the false equivalency of dark and challenging equals quality. Books that are pure fun are just as difficult to produce than the dark and sad ones; keeping things light and moving is a balancing act that can quickly fall into mundane. Burgis doesn’t stumble in this book, outside of a few characters I would have liked to have seen explored in a bit more depth. She throws a lot of balls in the there and somehow keeps juggling.
Ok, ok – I’ll get off my soapbox now. I just want to make sure we value fun and charming fantasy books, and that they are more than just “palate cleansers” between our Malazan reads. They are significant artists works that contribute much to fantasy as a genre, and me who uses reading as a temporary escape.
So, if you need a break and like regency gossip stuff (or are willing to give it a chance), go read this book. It’s funny, flirty, and a breeze.
Concluding Thoughts: Stephanie Burgis wrote a fun and fast paced regency romance with lots of dresses, gossip, and romance. All of the regency romances tropes are here, but with the added twist of a dash of dragons and magic. This is not a book for those looking for a lot of fantasy elements, but for readers who don’t mind the fantasy elements in the background this is a super fun way to spend a couple of afternoons.