STARRED REVIEW
January 12, 2021

The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry

By C.M. Waggoner

C.M. Waggoner’s second novel is a dazzling, romantic fantasy quest that requires all of the cogs in readers’ brains to turn at once.

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C.M. Waggoner’s second novel (following her outstanding 2019 debut, Unnatural Magic) is a dazzling, romantic fantasy quest that requires all of the cogs in readers’ brains to turn at once. Beyond her exceedingly clever, tongue-in-cheek chapter titles that harken back to classic adventure tales and her pointed observations of human—and other creatures’—true nature, Waggoner gifts readers with the delinquent, sailor-mouthed, headstrong, queer protagonist that they never knew they always needed, not to mention a riveting plot that continuously satisfies.

The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry follows several extraordinary female characters. Protagonist Dellaria “Delly” Wells is a streetwise fire witch—supposedly one of the best in the city Leiscourt—with whom readers will experience an immediate sense of camaraderie. Waggoner’s solidly built world of Daesland contains many class divides due to socioeconomic and magickal reasons, and Delly finds herself navigating them all with difficulty, being a citizen of the lower classes. She practices the snubbed arts of “gutterwitchery,” having dropped out of the local university to use her magic on the streets, despite possessing the skills and knowledge to excel in an academic setting. Delly has grown accustomed to her townie life, in which she takes care of her addiction-riddled Mam, spends her free time in the pub, owes various people money and often gallivants around town with a one-night stand or various friends with benefits.

When Delly jumps at an unexpected opportunity to join a noblewoman’s entourage as a bodyguard, she encounters a ragtag team of high-class lady sorcerers, necromancers and fighters, including an intriguing part-troll and an elderly “body scientist” (tsk, upper-class ladies don’t say necromancy) and even a shape-shifter. This raunchy, bawdy magic-school dropout attempts to fit in and protect Miss Wexin on her way to her marriage, all while finding her own romantic prospect in aforementioned part-troll. Murderous attempts by disturbing creatures on Miss Wexin’s life rock the group’s dynamics and make trusting others difficult. But these strange and dangerous encounters are only the first half or so of this breakneck-paced plot. Not only is Miss Wexin’s life in danger, there is also the larger societal problem of drip, an addictive drug with deadly side effects that is affecting the poorer classes. This league of ruthless women must pool together their skills for the greater good, and it may be up to Delly to crack the case due to her once-ridiculed background.

As characters begin what is quite possibly the strangest bonding experience of their entire lives, Waggoner gives each a distinct voice and personality—readers will develop more than a few memorable favorites. Waggoner excels at detailed world building, from the opulent nobles’ homes and foods to the sensory feel of both the gutterlife and manors, to the stench of the local pub and even the squeak of a mattress during Delly’s cavorting with assorted fellows. But its playful title does not do such a marvelous book, or its themes, justice. Delly’s world is a land where householded (adopted) children, questionably reanimated animals, neglectful mothers, drug addiction, mysterious potions and queer romances are quite the norm. This is a book of unlikely friendships and morbid humor that is unafraid to explore relevant and oft-avoided topics.

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