Nathan’s review of Claws and Contrivances by Stephanie Burgis (10 July 2023), a witty and magical Regency romance that takes what Scales and Sensibility did well and improves on it in nearly every way.
Passionate, idealistic Rose Tregarth may have been invited into her uncle’s remote home in the heart of Wales as an act of kindness to a poor relation, but it doesn’t take her long to realize that her newly-met family members are eccentric, creative, deeply lovable – and in need of all the help they can get. If the crumbling medieval walls of Gogodd Abbey aren’t to collapse around their heads at any moment, someone will have to step up and take charge of the situation. Fortunately for all of them, Rose has never lacked in determination. Add in more and more mysteriously appearing little dragons and a threatening new neighbor who could easily star as the villain in one of her aunt’s fabulous Gothic novels, and Rose is soon up to her ears in plots and schemes to save all the people and beasts she’s come to love…with the help of a sweet, baffled dragon scholar whom Rose has swept into a fake betrothal – for purely practical purposes, of course. With her fierce, loyal heart, Rose is more than ready to take care of everyone around her, dragons and humans alike. However, it may take an act of true magic to clear her eyes to the future – and the gentleman – she desires for herself.
My Review of Claws and Contrivances
A strong woman who knows what she wants? Check.
A nerdy academic love interest? Check.
A fake engagement? Check.
Romantic misunderstandings to hilarious effect? Check.
More dragons and magic? Check.
Scales and Sensibility, the first book in Burgis’ Regency Dragons series, became a surprise favorite of mine after it became a SPFBO finalist last year. I had never been interested in reading a regency rom-com before (seriously – this is why you should at least check out the SPFBO finalists every year to expand your reading horizons), but what I found was a funny, relaxing, enjoyable, and bingeable book about a woman from a down-on-their-luck family looking for a good marriage with economic prospects who accidentally stumbles into a madcap plot involving a magical dragon, mistaken identities, and love.
Claws and Contrivances follows the second of the Tregarth sisters first introduced in Scales and Sensibility, Rose, as she goes on her own adventure to overcome the financial ruin of her family. This setup allows Burgis to introduce a whole cast of new characters to meet and either fall in love with (or absolutely despise) with many direct connections and Easter Eggs that explicitly tie the book back to Scales and Sensibility.
None of these connections is more apparent than Rose’s love interest, Aubrey, who was a minor side character in Scales and Sensibility. I absolutely fell in love with Aubrey because he is a romantic love interest you don’t often get to see in fiction. He is bookish, intelligent, and shy but not in that “oh he likes books but is actually really hot and brooding” kind of way. He is an academic in the socially awkward, emotionally dumb kind of way. Aubrey was unique and endearing, and you cannot help but root for Aubrey and Rose to get their happily ever after. The romance between Aubrey and Rose is a much stronger core romance than Elinor’s in Scales and Sensibility, and it is complete with a fake engagement, familial and financial misunderstandings, and a bookish man just doing his best to navigate it all.
While Scales and Sensibility was an utterly fun romp and smashing good time, Claws and Contrivances is a much more relaxed, and therefore even more fun novel to sink your teeth into. Unlike Elinor’s circumstances, Rose lives among distant family who are actually likeable and want what is best for her. Her uncle is a bit of a bulldog who stumbles a lot, but is at his core a loving human being who just wants what is best for his family. Her aunt is a gothic romance novelist (which leads to a scene where the main characters do a dramatic reading of her newest novel, one of the absolute best scenes in all of Claws and Contrivances), who is a kind of feminist trendsetter, blazing forward in her own path. And Rose’s cousins are all endearingly weird in their own ways (including the goth obsessed Serena, the queer coded George – who I definitely want a spinoff about with her own lesbian love story!). I really settled into the rhythm of Claws and Contrivances much faster than Scales and Sensibility because Rose doesn’t have to push back against the people who are supposed to love her; they embrace her with open arms. Each of the family members gets their small moment to shine, crafting a cast of characters that you will be sad to leave behind as the book reaches its final pages.
Instead, the conflict comes from an external force, Sir Gareth. I won’t spoil the dastardly plots Gareth gets up to in the book, but I relished his evil ways and how Burgis incorporated deeper and more complex social issues into this book, using the fantasy of her books to directly comment on problems plaguing our world, both in the Regency period and in the present. Plot-wise, this also allows for some awesome scenes where Rose and her entire family came together to try and thwart Sir Gareth. This might make Claws and Contrivances a bit more of a standard and straightforward plot than Scales and Sensibility, but Burgis spins in enough twists and turns, as well as genuinely gleeful and funny moments, that everything feels fresh and magical.
Speaking of magic, one of my only criticisms of Scales and Sensibility is that the book lacked just a bit more magic. That book was less of a fantasy romance and a romance with just a garnish of magic. If you felt the same way, I am happy to tell you that Claws and Contrivances, without losing the spirit of its predecessor, has more dragons and more magic. Burgis gives us a bit more background on how the dragons operate in this world (because the face-changing powers from Scales and Sensibility are a bit more complex than that!) and we have dragon-scholar Aubrey in a much more central role to pontificate about the nature of dragons….and once again be proven wrong by someone with much more hands-on, real world experiences.
After falling head over heels with the love and magic of Scales and Sensibility, I didn’t think that Burgis could ever top it. Well, Claws and Contrivances is better in nearly every way and I highly recommend it to all readers of Regency romance, fantasy romance, and maybe to people who haven’t checked out a book like this before. Claws and Contrivances it is like the best PBS Masterpiece drama, and it has my highest recommendation.
Concluding Thoughts: Witty, magical, and romantic, Claws and Contrivances takes everything wonderful about Scales and Sensibility and improves upon it in every way. A strong protagonist, and bookish and shy love interest, a fake engagement, a wonderful cast of characters, and an evil noble all make a book that will grab you from page one and never let you go. Sometimes we forget that books can challenge us, but that reading should be fun, and reading Claws and Contrivances is an absolute blast. Highly recommended.