Set in the paranormal Victorian world of KJ Charles’ Charm of Magpies series, Rag & Bone is the follow-up novel to A Queer Trade, a novella that appeared in the Charmed & Dangerous anthology last year. In A Queer Trade, we were introduced to Ned, a working class man who buys used paper in bulk and resells it for things like wrapping food, and Crispin, a magic practitioner who casts spells by writing on paper with a special pen that uses his blood. It’s not an entirely respectable form of magic and when Rag & Bone opens, Crispin is trying to relearn how to use his powers. While he and Ned are an item right from the beginning of the book, practical Ned isn’t particularly fond of magic. But he is fond of Crispin so they’re trying to work things out until a ghostly voice and spontaneous combustion threaten Ned’s paper shop.
Rag & Bone take the two heroes to a much more solid place personally and professionally than where we left them in A Queer Trade. After a series of positively fraught pairings by Charles, the less intense, but still action-packed Rag & Bone made for a nice change. While there is most certainly conflict here–the protagonists are of different social classes and races, Ned is suspicious of Crispin’s magic and Crispin is having a hard time adjusting to his new life–much of the conflict is external. Rather than setting the heroes against each other as in her recent historical series, Society of Gentlemen, Ned and Crispin spend quite a lot of the book working together to solve the mystery. And while it doesn’t always go smoothly, they manage through a combination of knowledge, street smarts and pure stubbornness.
There are also cameos by all our favorite Magpies characters, which will be fun for those who have read that series. But along with A Queer Trade, this one could stand alone. It also manages to avoid what I have recently been calling “the Avengers problem” which is “Where the hell are the most powerful characters in this world and why the hell aren’t they doing anything about this issue?” It’s a question I’ve sometimes had about Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series novellas, for instance. No, here Charles has seamlessly and brilliantly interwoven the story line of this book with the previous Charm of Magpies books so we know exactly what Stephen, Crane and Stephen’s partner Esther are up to while an evil being is killing off civilians. It’s so well done that I immediately had to reread the entire series just to enjoy how nicely they all matched up.
While Ned and Crispin didn’t leave me with quite as much doubt about their eventual, inevitable happy ending as Stephen and Crane did and they are already to some degree a couple when the book starts, the romantic arc is still quite nice. It’s more about two people learning to trust each other, discovering each others’ strengths and weaknesses and finding out how much they love each other then the manic rush of new love. Neither Ned nor Crispin are really the sorts to get carried away like that. Instead we get a quieter exploration of deepening affection leading to what looks to be a very solid relationship.
Rag & Bone is another wonderful addition to the Charm of Magpies world. With the imminent demise of Samhain, KJ’s publisher for this series, I can only hope we get to see more of these two. There’s a definite happy ending, but door has also been left open for future adventures.
A few weeks ago KJ wrote about being asked to visit her child’s school to talk about being a writer with a bunch of 8-year-olds. She mentioned that one of the questions she was dreading was the inevitable, “Where do you get your ideas?” And then proceeded to list out places she had gotten ideas, none of which made a whole lot of sense, were directly related to what they eventually became, or were going to be terribly accessible to a bunch of kids. And that’s before she got to the Victorian pornography.
So the song Scarborough Fair features rather prominently (and creepily) in this book. Initially I thought I might take that as my inspiration for this post: parsley, sage, rosemary & thyme. But there’s also a reference to something called “plum dough” which I thought sounded interesting. I imagined something like a plum stuffed with sugar and dried fruit, baked in pastry. Well, that’s not what it is. I asked KJ and it’s actually a sort of pudding. But since I made a pudding for my review of A Seditious Affair at Christmas, I didn’t really want to make another one. And, well, plums are out of season.
But you know what I did have? Late winter storage apples. My friend E from the Book Pushers blog sent me some apples the other day that she wasn’t going to be able to use. Most of them I chopped up and had in oatmeal for breakfast, but I had just a couple left over and they were starting to look a little sad, which is the perfect time to make baked apples.
Then I read KJ’s post and thought, well, if she can do it so can I. So here’s my take on plum dough. Except filtered through my erroneous imaginings of what that might be. And my unwillingness to make another pudding. And made of apples because I had them and I couldn’t get fresh plums. Shrug.
- 3 tablespoons dried fruit (I used raisins, cranberries and chopped dates)
- 3 tablespoons spiced rum
- 3 tablespoons chopped walnuts
- 1/2 cup lightly packed light brown sugar
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
- 2 cups all-purpose flour (plus more for rolling)
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon white sugar
- 1/2 stick cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
- 1/2 cup lard
- 1 egg
- 1-2 tablespoons ice cold water
- 4 small firm baking apples (like Crispin or Pink Lady)
- 2 tablespoons melted butter
- 2 teaspoons white sugar, divided
- In a small bowl, stir together dried fruit and rum. Cover with plastic wrap and allow to sit overnight.
- Drain the fruit and return it to the bowl. Add the walnuts, cinnamon, nutmeg and brown sugar and mix to combine.
- In a food processor or bowl, whisk or pulse together the flour, salt and sugar. Add the butter and lard. Pulse until mixture resembles crumbs or use a pastry blender. Add the egg and pulse a few times or stir together.
- Remove the crust mixture to a bowl. Adding water a teaspoon at a time, fold together the dough with a spatula until it begins to hold together. Pat it into a square with your hands, wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 30 minutes.
- Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and prepare a baking pan with parchment paper.
- Core and peel your apples. If they're quite rounded on the bottom, you can cut off the bottom 1/4 inch so they will sit flat.
- Flour a rolling surface and roll out the dough into a 12-inch by 12-inch square. The dough will be about an eighth of an inch thick. Slice into four 6-inch squares.
- Place an apple in the center of each square, fill with stuffing and crimp the edges together as shown.
- Using a pastry brush, coat the apple packets with melted butter and sprinkle each with a 1/2 teaspoon of white sugar.
- Bake until golden brown, about 40 minutes. Let cool for 10 minutes or to room temperature and serve with fresh whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.
- I needed 1 tablespoon of water for the crust but it might take more depending on humidity and the water content of your other ingredients.
- If you have an automatic thing that peels and cores apples, which I don't, it is perfectly alright to use a knife to cut a square around the core and push it out and then peel the apple with a vegetable peeler.
March 1, 2016
eARC from the author