"Charmingly old-fashioned" is how I would describe Michael Pryor's series The Lasw of Magic, which begins with Blaze of Glory (reviewed separately) and continues with Heart of Gold, Word of Honour, and the most recent, due out this summer--Time of Trial, all of which I'll review as a group here. The concluding book will be Hour of Need.
The series is set in an alternate England (called Albion) during the Edwardian Age, on the cusp of WWI at first and then at the start of war in the final two books. The Industrial Revolution happened beside a parallel magical revolution and the two are deeply intertwined in day to day life, though magic less so since it is limited to those with a natural born talent for it, a talent which can be improved and honed via courses of study, the titular "Laws" as well as the study of the ancient languages that underlie most spells.
The main character is Aubrey Fitzwilliam, whose father is the Prime Minister and whose mother is a famed explorer/naturalist. Aubrey is one of those with magical talent--a lot of it, as well as a head for the hard science aspect of it, what he calls "Rational Magic." His best friend and constant companion, devoid of any magical talent himself but full of surprising other ones, is George. The girl he meets in book one and then develops a relationship with, and who thus joins him in all his adventures, is Caroline, who is more than capable in a host of ways (she's a martial arts expert) despite having no magic. The "big bad" of the series is a completely amoral magician, Dr. Tremaine, who is pushing the world toward world war for the singular purpose that the needs a lot of blood sacrifices to cast a spell of immortality on himself.
My review of Blaze of Glory called it a solid if not compelling book that piqued my interest enough to want to continue. I'm glad I did for while it does have some of the same flaws as that first book, in general the books gradually improve and deepen as the series goes on while the world turns more grim and Aubrey grows a bit older.
Heart of Gold deals with trying to recover an object central to Gallian's (France) existence and with a "soul-stealer" who is turning people into zombies. In Word of Honour, the three friends head of to university and end up mixed up in sabotaged submersibles, a bank theft, and international finance. Time of Trial takes the group to hostile Holmland (Germany) where they must deal with ghosts, golems, and the seeming inevitability of war. And war has in fact come by the time we reach Moment of Truth, and the three friends waste no time in enlisting, becoming part of an elite espionage group whose first task sends them to a border area between Gallia and Holmland where a mysterious factory connected to Dr. Tremaine has suddenly started producing . . . something. Each book resolves the book's specific threat while moving forward the series' arc: world war and Tremaine's attempts to become immortal.
I mentioned at the outset that I found the books to be "charmingly old-fashioned." What I mean by that is they remind me a lot of YA books from the 60s (before they were called YA) such as The Hardy Boys, Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, etc. (and yes, I realize these had an earlier incarnation but I'm going with what I know here folks--I'm not that old). The characters are all good, they're all good at what they do and they show surprising skills as needed, there are a lot of convenient coincidences, and one never has a doubt that the heroes (and they are fully heroes--no anti-heroes here) will prevail. There is also a sweetness and innocence to their bondings, both as friends and in romances, that hearkens back to those books. These are not jaded teens; they are not awash in "pop" culture, they don't ogle each other sexually, they don't curse or drink, etc. Set in a contemporary world, we'd probably roll our eyes (whether that's a good thing or not is debatable), but it's certainly a perfect tone for this world, whose innocence just might come crashing down thanks to modern warfare. I have to say, it's a bit refreshing and, as I said, charming. I thoroughly enjoyed that aspect.
The pace at which Aubrey and Caroline's "relationship" develops is another plus. And I put that in quotes because they don't really have one as we'd usually think of it by the end of Moment of Truth, though it appears to be just beginning by the end. I am so tired of the shorthand relationship recipe we get all the time in seemingly all our media (books, TV, films): take two complete strangers, throw them together into a stressful situation for 5 to 45 hours, add some cross-banter early where they express clear dislike for each, stir well, than add some cross-banter where the express clear attraction for each other, then voila: love! This is a romance that actually takes the time for romancing--and by that I mean not flowers and dinners but when two people actually learn about each other. It was a nice change.
The first few books I thought has some pacing issues; each could have lost 50 to 80 pages or so, but the last two are much more efficient I'd say. Not necessarily leaner in terms of page count, but they don't really lag at any point. The humor grows throughout the series and there were several times I was laughing out loud in Moment of Truth.
Aubrey still tends to be perhaps a bit too good at magic; we're told he struggles to come up with ideas now and then, or that an attempt left him weary, but really we don't feel any of that is very true and we always know he'll come up with a new spell that's perfect for the job. What I do like about it, though, is that is isn't simply inborn talent. He does come up with new spells that are perfect because he studies magic and thinks about it constantly--its foundations, where it can be improved, how different "fields" can be meshed, how various Laws can be put together. He isn't good because he's a good magician; he's good because he's smart and curious.
Side characters are mostly shallow; Tremaine is more of an abstract kind of villain--one of the old-fashioned kind. In other books these would be flaws, but here again, they seem to fit the old-fashioned tone of the series, the old kind of romance (old definition, not romantic) or adventure stories. They just didn't bother me as much as they would in other books.
Some people may find The Laws of Magic too old-fashioned, some may find the coincidences, or the lack of in-depth characterization, too off-putting, or the predicable nature of the plots may be bothersome. I can absolutely see that. But to be honest, that all just mostly slid by me; I just enjoyed the series. It isn't "great," it isn't particularly moving or thought provoking, but there's something to be said for "enjoyable" as a trait in fiction. I think especially for its YA audience, this meets that standard, especially from the third book on. I look forward to seeing how it wraps up. Recommended.