Today I am excited to present one of the best romances I have read in a while that is out here masquerading as a fantasy mystery thriller. The Hexologists is the first book in the latest series by Josiah Bancroft, of Tower of Babel fame. It stars a duo of mature protagonists, husband and wife, who work as hexologists solving paranormal magical crimes around where they live. Though this story has a ton of mystery elements and a world chock full of amazing sights to see, the real shining star is the wonderful relationship Isolde and Warren Wilby share.
Isolde (Iz) Wilby is a world-renowned hexologist. The daughter of a famous explorer and a brilliant librarian, she is a master of one of the four magical schools—hexology. Though it is considered the weakest school by some, it calls to artists like Iz. Plus, as wizards and necromancers have been hunted to extinction, and alchemists seem to all be capitalist robber barons, it definitely is the most appealing magic to me. Iz lives a relatively quiet life with her adoring bear of a husband Warren, occasionally venturing out as a Sherlock/Watson-esque duo to solve mysteries people bring them. But, when a representative of the crown shows up at their doorstep and asks them to look into why the king keeps trying to bake himself into a cake, the Wilbys find themselves reluctantly drawn into the affairs of the court and must navigate the baggage that comes with it.
Where to start with The Hexologists? Bancroft rose to fame off of his initially self-published Tower of Babel, which unsurprisingly meant that a portion of his debut quartet felt a bit unpolished. The Hexologists in many ways feels like the result of his enormous growth as an author and access to editors from page one. The polish on this story is enormous compared to his previous work and the entire thing tics like an elegant clock. Yet, none of this polish has come at the cost of what makes Bancroft’s writing so compelling and imaginative. This book is still filled to the brim with whimsy and creativity; each page feels stuffed full of wonder. Though the book is only about 300 pages long, it has the heft of a much larger story because there is nothing but meat on its bones.
Throughout the story, the Wilbys encounter a truly staggering number of strange, bewildering, and terrifying obstacles. And for each, using their ingenuity and a magical bag of tools, they are able to step over every single one. Though the magic system is very soft and hand-wavey, it never feels haphazard. There is incredible foreshadowing throughout the book and every single item Bancroft introduces feels like a stitch in a larger wonderful tapestry. Unconstrained by rules, The Hexologists is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. Every 10-page chapter has a new weird creature, magical item, or strange world feature to uncover and the vibe perfectly fits the themes of magical detective work that make up the backbone of the story. But, for all its success in the ways I traditionally assess a book, it is hard to put a number on how much I love the romantic relationship between this couple.
Iz is a quiet, cold, introspective, brilliant scientist who is obsessed with the mysteries of the world and the cogs that turn reality. She is a prodigy of several fields who bends the universe to her whims and always feels like the leader in control of every room she walks into. Warren is a burly, affable, trusting, warm, extrovert who makes fast friends with every single person he meets. Multiple times in this story Warren extricates himself from dangerous situations by just becoming genuine friends with his antagonists, the fantasy of those of us who hate conflict. Separate, these two individuals are titanic characters who won over my heart immediately. Together, they are a power couple that I have rarely read the likes of in the genre. It is simply a good time to be around them and watch them interact. Everything they do makes me just smile at my wife and want to go buy her flowers. It is so, so, nice to have an established couple in fantasy who love one another. And when your protagonists are a joy to be around it becomes incredibly hard to not be invested in the story always.
Every page of The Hexologists is bursting with fun, novelty, and romance. It is a book that is just a joy to read from the moment you start it til the second you close the back cover. It makes a great triumph in Bancroft as a writer as well as a reminder that he got popular for a reason. Absolutely highly recommend this book, I can’t wait for the sequel.
Rating: The Hexologists – 10/10
An ARC of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The thoughts on this book are my own.