Book Review: The Magick of Master Lilly by Tobsha Learner

The Magick of Mister LillyAbout the Book

In 1641, the country of England stands divided. London has become a wasps’ nest of spies, and under the eyes of the Roundheads those who practice magic are routinely sent to hang.

Living in exile in the Surrey countryside is the Master Astrologer and learned magician William Lilly. Since rumours of occult practice lost him the favour of Parliament, he has not returned to the city. But his talents are well-known, and soon he is called up to London once more, to read the fate of His Majesty the King.

What he sees in the stars will change the course of history.

Only Lilly and a circle of learned astrologers – Cunning Folk – know that London is destined to suffer plague and fire before the decade is through, and must summon angel and demon to sway the political powers from the war the country is heading toward. In doing so, Lilly will influence far greater destinies than his own and encounter great danger. But there will be worse to come . . .

Format: Paperback, ebook (480 pp.)    Publisher: Little Brown/Sphere
Published: 7th July (ebook), 1st November 2018 (paperback)
Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

William Lilly tells his story in a distinctive narrative voice giving the reader privileged access to many of the pivotal events of the English Civil War.  Lilly comes across as slightly pompous, a little arrogant but also with an engaging sense of humour, often expressed in the form of disparaging remarks about fellow astrologers and clients or cheeky asides directed at the reader.  ‘At which Tobias collapsed in a chair and began fanning himself with a much-valued volume of Tycho Brahe’s astrological observations.  I carefully removed the volume and replaced it with an Nativity of a minor client of no consequence.’

As Lilly’s reputation increases, and despite remarking at one point on ‘humility being one of the conduits to success’, he’s not averse to proudly boasting that ‘…the accuracy of my prediction hath made me, by my own humble reckoning, the most famed Astrologer in the land’.

The reader observes Lilly as he sees clients (or ‘querents’) seeking the benefit of his astrological skills to provide solutions to everything from the location of missing items, the paternity of children, the likelihood of misadventure on the high seas, to the fate of nations.

A chance encounter sees Lilly succumb to the temptations of the flesh, described in intimate detail with no blushes spared.  (The author also writes erotic fiction.)  In fact, Lilly doesn’t try to resist temptation too hard (pardon the pun) and his dalliance provides him with a vital contact within the Royalist cause as well as, it seems, a soul mate and a welcome distraction from a loveless marriage.  Trying to keep a foot in both camps, as it were, by making himself useful to both the Royalists and the Puritans brings him into dangerously close contact with notorious figures such as Matthew Hopkins, the Witch-Finder General, running the risk of denunciation and arrest.

At just under 500 pages (hence the book’s description as ‘an epic telling of the role of magic in the English Civil War’),  I confess I found the book a little slow at times.  I’ll admit to skimming some of the lengthier and more detailed descriptions of Lilly’s procedures for drawing up his predictions as the book went on.  However, I admired the author’s creation of a distinctive narrative voice and the obviously detailed research undertaken into the events of the English Civil War (although, the author does admit to inventing one of the key characters in the book – Lilly’s love interest).

Readers like me interested more in the historical subject matter of the novel may find there is too much of the astrological and occult.  Conversely, readers interested in the life of a renowned astrologer (who, I confess, I had never heard of before coming across this book) may find they become too bogged down in historical detail.   The Magick of Master Lilly is full of interesting historical detail and colourful characters but I didn’t love it quite as much as I expected.

I received a review copy courtesy of publishers, Little Brown, and NetGalley.

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In three words: Detailed, bawdy, witty

Try something similar…The Bones of Avalon by Phil Rickman

About the Author

Tobsha Learner was born and raised in England; she now divides her time between Australia, the UK and the USA. She is well known in Australia as an author and playwright.

Tobsha also writes under the pen name T. S. Learner.

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