Splinters of Scarlet is a refreshing change of pace in the world of YA fantasy, using its magical setting and rich world-building to explore capitalism and greed.
Splinters of Scarlet isn’t your average YA fantasy. There’s no love triangle, no throne up for grabs, no ragamuffin girl who turns out to be a princess in disguise. Instead, this is a novel of magic set in the servant class which quietly punches above its weight, telling a story that serves as a none too subtle metaphor for the way unchecked capitalism and greed can subtly ruin lives.
In this version of 19th century Denmark, magic is real. But it’s also deadly. Because those who use it eventually fall victim to a disease known as the Firn, icy crystals that build up in the veins of magic users as they exercise their powers. For those who use too much magic – usually the poor or other down on their luck types who have to use their abilities to earn a living – it means an early, painful death. And yet, there are plenty of well-off people who are more than happy to let the magical lower classes kill themselves in the name of making their lives more comfortable.
Marit Olsen is an orphan. She lost her father to a mining accident at town gem mines, and her sister almost immediately afterward, to the Firn. She’s made a new home at the orphanage, largely thanks to Eve, a young girl that Marit has adopted as a surrogate little sister.
So much so that when Eve is finally adopted, Marit concocts a plan to follow Eve to her new family – by offering up her magic. In the Vestergaard household you see, all the servants have magic, and all risk themselves daily in the service of menial tasks like gardening, cooking dinner and mending clothes. They’re paid handsomely, of course, but no one’s under any illusions about the things the Vestergaard family is asking them to do. Dying slowly is still dying, after all.
While the Vestergaard staff is slow to warm to Marit, eventually she finds herself making a family there, centered around her roommate Liljan and her brother, Jakob, who eventually becomes her nerdy, adorable love interest. But when a former Vestergaard servant turns up dead, Marit’s investigation into her disappearance will change everything for all of them – and may even provide an explanation for the mining accident that killed her father.
The chapters alternate perspectives between Marit herself and Phillip Vestergaard, head of the Vestergaard family, which mix in a seemingly unrelated (until it isn’t) story of war, greed, and patriotism. The ultimate ending is full of surprises and twists, that are both earned and satisfying to watch unfold.
But it’s Murphy’s world-building that truly stands out in this novel, from the original and intricate rules of magic to the complex spaces of the Vestergaard mansion, complete with its servants’ tunnels and secret passages. The powers of the various servants are varied and interesting, and the way that magic itself is woven into the history of this version of Denmark is rather remarkable at times.
A story of changing perceptions, love, and found family, Splinters of Scarlet is a surprisingly rich, emotional tale – not of magic, though that does play a significant role in the story. Rather, it’s about the things that make us human and the connections we make with others.
It’s a cliché, perhaps, but it’s true – love is the real magic and this story isn’t afraid to lean into that idea, in a way that’s ultimately charming on every level, rather than cloying. Yes, the scene in which our heroine and Jakob finally confess their feelings to one another is swooningly romantic, but so is the scene in which Marit and her adopted sister Eve discuss how much they mean to one another. And so is the scene in which she and a former enemy save each other in the face of life-threatening danger. There’s so much to love, as a reader.
Splinters of Scarlet is a standalone novel, a refreshing aberration in our world of trilogies and unnecessary sequels. And don’t get me wrong, it’s honestly lovely to read a story with a defined beginning, middle and end. But Murphy’s world is so arresting, it’s a shame to know that it’s not one we’ll return to. (Or at least, not anytime soon – I would read another story set in this universe, just saying!!)
Splinters of Scarlet is available now.