Genres: Queer Protagonists, Secondary World Fantasy
Representation: Bisexual MC, F/F or wlw, queernorm world
A charming historical fantasy with a tender love story at its core, from the author of Unnatural Magic.
Hard-drinking petty thief Dellaria Wells is down on her luck in the city of Leiscourt—again. Then she sees a want ad for a female bodyguard, and she fast-talks her way into the high-paying job. Along with a team of other women, she’s meant to protect a rich young lady from mysterious assassins.
At first Delly thinks the danger is exaggerated, but a series of attacks shows there’s much to fear. Then she begins to fall for Winn, one of the other bodyguards, and the women team up against a mysterious, magical foe who seems to have allies everywhere.
I received this book for free from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.
~a haunted mouse skeleton
~made-up words that will make you giggle
~cakes and pies
~a really gold-plated romance
~a fire wizard with a taste for gin
~the way to get a criminal’s attention is to out-crime them
When a book has a title like The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry, you go in expecting a hell of a lot of fun and one hell of a ride – and Lady’s Guide absolutely lives up to those expectations! Surpasses them, even. Because Waggoner has managed to write a book that is as twisty and nuanced as it is fun, a book that made me stop to think as often as it made me laugh. It’s utterly delightful, and a wonderful successor to Waggoner’s debut Unnatural Magic.
Men should never be too good-looking. It gave them ideas.
Which is appropriate, because The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is set in the same world as Unnatural Magic, with a brief glimpse of some familiar characters. However, you in no way need to have read Unnatural Magic first (although you should, because it, also, is amazing!!!) Lady’s Guide works perfectly as a standalone; you need no prior knowledge of this fantasy-world to enjoy it!
“Fuck me, Winn, this ain’t a particularly favorable turn of fucking events,” Delly said the second they were out on the street, the number of syllables in her personal lexicon being proportional to her perception of egregious enfucktation in her current, present, and unfortunate familial circumstances.
Delly is our main character, and the absolute star of the book. She reminded me of Cockney ne’er-do-wells, a wonderfully loveable, absolutely hilarious, street-smart and cheeky heroine I could happily listen to all day – there’s a reason her dialogue makes me think of Cockney English, and it’s that Waggoner has created a marvellous dialect (alleychat) for Delly and her peers that is just so much fun to read! On top of that is Delly’s own particular way of looking at the world and the words she regularly makes up to describe what she sees – or, even funnier, to make herself sound extra polite and fancy when speaking to her ‘betters’;
“No, Magister. I only meant to express my surprise, Magister, that a young lady of such daintitudinous aspect might be a cloved woman, Magister.”
She’s not an iteration of the Sunny-and-Virtuous Poor Person, though – which I’m always glad of, since that’s a character template I fucking hate. Delly has grown up in pretty extreme poverty, and even as an adult she’s very much living hand-to-mouth. It’s made her more than a little callous, cynical, and ruthlessly practical. Sometimes her thoughts and decisions have the potential to be shocking – such as the way she sets out to seduce Winn, in the hope of getting this well-bred, privileged, wealthy woman to marry her and whisk her away to a life of ease and comfort. That’s the kind of mercenary thinking it’s easy to judge, but – well, only if you’ve never been poor, or don’t have the empathy and compassion to imagine it very well.
(Yes I will defend Delly and her choices to the death, fight me.)
Those two aspects of her character – the hilarious, loveable sweetheart and the more-than-a-bit-ruthless have-not – interact in ways I don’t see very often, and add a ton of depth to the reading experience. For much of the book, every scene Delly shares with the main cast has multiple layers; there’s the Delly the other characters see, and there’s the Delly inside her head, who only we see. Actions that appear kind, we know to be motivated by different flavours of selfishness; we hear every sarcastic comment she bites back so the others will think well of her; we see how she’s asking questions not because she’s interested, but because she’s trying to manipulate conversations away from Dangerous Topics.
It really doesn’t make her less lovable, though. Because it works the other way, too; the reader sees when she does act out of kindness, when she does do something lovely with no ulterior motive – which is something even Delly herself doesn’t see. Delly doesn’t think she’s any kind of good person…but we know otherwise. It’s a fascinating, and super sweet, dissonance between reader, Delly, and the other characters.
“Oh,” Delly said, and felt her own cheeks heating. “Would you like me out pop out to hunt up some supper? I’m absolutely famished.”
Winn smiled at her. “That would be absolutely cream-topped of you, if you don’t mind,” she said, which obviously spurred Delly into charging right back out the door again for fear of being thought of as anything less than utterly and entirely cream-topped.
As you might have inferred from my description of Delly’s less conventially attractive aspects, The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is not all cupcakes and sparkles (alas). I think Waggoner has done a brilliant job of balancing the whimsy and the dark, but the dark is still there. And I’m not talking about the undead mouse (who is simply adorable): I mean that what starts out as a bodyguarding job rapidly mutates into a genuinely tragic murder, and the fall-out of that murder. Most of the book isn’t about the bodyguarding; it’s about the (very circuitous) hunt for the murderer, and in the process Delly and her companions have to dig into the criminal underworld, especially when it comes to drip, the illegal, dangerous drug that Delly’s mother is already addicted to.
Drip was what most people were taking hereabouts to make themselves go button-eyed. Dellaria herself steered clear. Drip was like love, she figured: all good enough fun, but you’d better not let yourself get too used to it or it’d take you apart as sure as knives.
Mostly it’s kept fairly funny and light, but there are definitely moments that hit you in the gut – as they’re supposed to. In-between falling for Winn and making up wonderfully ridiculous words, Delly is desperate to scrape up the cash to get her mum to one of those country retreat/hospital places, while struggling with her feelings towards said mum, given that she hasn’t exactly been a good mother. There are heart-bruising moments when Delly is smacked in the face with the class difference between her and the other women, and the many things that difference means (including how the police treat her, and honestly, they’re the ones who need some smacks in the face!)
Any sort of outrageous lie sounded more like the most crystalline of truths when spoken in an expensive-sounding-enough accent.
Ruthless is very far from doom-and-gloom. Just, I don’t want to give the impression it’s nothing but candyfloss and giggles, either, because it isn’t. It’s a mix, and it’s a mix that makes it a much stronger, richer book.
“you ought to change your ways, Dellaria Wells,” Bessa said.
Delly nodded slowly. “Ought to indeed. Might be that I’m too short for it, thought.”
Bessa pursed her lips. “How does your height signify?”
“I reckon that sin, being denser than air, tends to settle close to the ground,” Delly said. “That’s why as a rule you’ll find your drunks lying in gutters and your great thickets of pious young ladies up in choir lofts.”
Speaking of richness, a major part of what makes this book so damn delightful is the romance! Yes, sure, Delly sets out to charm Winn for practical reasons, not lovey-dovey ones, but Winn wins Delly’s heart before Delly even realises Winn is playing the game. (Not than Winn is playing – at least, certainly not in the toying with sense. Winn only plays the love game for keeps.) Winn is Competent with a capital C, impossibly cheerful and difficult to discombobulate, and utterly adorable. She’s a bit shy about flirting. She’s ridiculously kind and thoughtful and sweet, and just an all-round perfect gull, as Delly might say.
She also throws bullets at Delly at ungodly hours to teach her how to defend herself.
“If you didn’t want to be shot at at all you shouldn’t have gotten into this business, Dellaria,” Winn said. “You might have considered taking in laundry instead, what? A much safer sort of career. Noble profession, too. Making everyone smell nicer without any violence.
It probably would have been easy to make Winn boring – maybe she would have been, in the hands of a lesser writer. But Waggoner approaches Winn’s character from the perspective of, well, all of us who aren’t super chipper all the time, and acknowledging that we might find someone like her occasionally annoying in real life makes her hilarious instead;
“You really do go on when you’re trying to wriggle your way out of something,” Winn said. If good cheer was generally like the warming rays of the sun, Winn’s good cheer, at this moment, was like the warming rays of the sun to a man in the middle of a desert wearing a thick coat.
And that’s another thing – Winn doesn’t let Delly get away with things. She, Winn, isn’t there to be the rich indulgent love interest who only exists to be convenient and sweet – she isn’t passively drifting in Delly’s wake; she’s tough and genuinely good and has a supernatural ability to hunt down extra-delicious pie. She’s impossible not to adore, but – there are characters who are so perfect that they’re boring, characters who are all sweet airy pastry with no filling, and Winn is not one of them. Winn is a pie that is just as delicious as it looks, and fully satisfying, and that you’ll definitely want a second helping of.
I don’t know what that makes Delly, in this pie metaphor. Ice cream? Something that goes excellently with pie, anyway. Because the romantic plotline of Ruthless really does read like the best kind of dessert, indulgent and warm and sweet, neither too heavy nor too light, neither cloying or bitter. The kind of dessert you order again and again; the kind you come back for, like you’ll come back to this book, just to get to read it – experience it – all over again.
The Ruthless Lady’s Guide to Wizardry is an adventure story and a love story and a fundamentally fun story, even when it gets serious – and Waggoner’s attention to detail, her worldbuilding, her turns of phrase and her dialogue, are all just gold-plated;
“Might as well take a shift at the dream workshop before your shift as a jailer, old thing. You look ready to make that cake a pillow.”
“let’s not cross any bridges before they hatch.”
I declared Ruthless one of the Best SFF Books of 2021, and I absolutely stand by that. And as one of 2021’s earliest releases, it feels appropriate to have my review of it be my last one of the year – I can’t imagine a better way to close than with one of my favourite books.
If you haven’t read this yet, you need to. So along and buy yourself a copy – that would be absolutely cream-topped of you, old thing.