Secrets are the hidden coin of politics. Whether state, military, or personal, secrets give one power over another. Skeletons buried deep in closets provide leverage, and often people will go to great lengths to protect theirs. In Josiah Bancroft’s latest novel, The Hexologists, secrets abound. More than that, it’s a book built upon hidden things. One of the main characters, Isolde Ann Always Wilby, is a detective who excels at finding hidden things. She’s supported by her husband, Warren Wilby, né Warren Offalman. (He took her last name.) The Wilbies are private detectives, and in their line of work, they’ve achieved a bit of notoriety in the press. At the beginning of The Hexologists, the Wilbies are approached by a royal secretary with a letter proclaiming the king has a long-lost son. This unacknowledged child would alter the balance of power at court, and the secretary wishes to know if the claim is true. Despite being staunch anti-royalists, the Wilbies take the job, partially because the king is ill and wishes to be literally baked into a pie, but also because Iz is curious. She, like any good detective, has to know. She just has to know the answer to the mystery. And, if the claim is true, then the current uneasy balance of power at the royal court will be upended, with the lower classes paying the cost of aristocratic infighting. While the royal secretary is at their house, a magical creature attacks. Clearly, someone is willing to kill to protect the king’s secrets.
The Hexologists is the first book in a new series from Bancroft. It takes place in a city, Berbiton, which is very much-like Victorian-era London. Industry and technology are booming, no matter the cost to the environment. Society is stratified into distinct classes; magic flows throughout the city; rumors of the king’s illness create instability at every level. Berbiton seems like a prosperous, industrious city, but hidden beneath the surface are plots, turmoil … and magic. (At one point during the Wilbies’ investigation, a flock of birds delivers a message from a dangerous magician to Iz.) As in any good novel, the Wilbies uncover more than they bargained for. Already investigating a potentially realm-destabilizing claim, they come to learn that there are hidden forces at work in their society that they and others thought long finished.
Isolde and Warren Wilby are reminiscent of the main characters from the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Here, Iz stands in as the Holmes-esque character, and her husband, Warren, fills the Watson role. Iz is cerebral, calculating, and excellent at solving puzzles. Warren is more corporeal. He’s a big man who cooks and is a people person. Warren makes friends easily, and his sociability helps them during investigations. But they’re more than just Holmes and Watson clones. Iz may be cerebral, but she knows to listen to Warren when he’s being empathetic. She may be distant to strangers, but with Warren, she’s very warm. They keep no secrets from each other. In fact, their marriage makes up one of the best aspects of this book.
Too often in fiction, marriages are falling apart or are strained, perhaps because it’s an easy source of tension to propel the story. While there are many failing relationships in the world, there are also many successful ones, and yet they’re not often represented in novels. In this book, the Wilbies have a strong marriage. Not only do they rely on each other as investigative partners, they also rely on each other for comfort, for protection, and for pleasure. Bancroft shows how they care for each other emotionally as well as physically. Their lovely little marriage is the calm eye at the center of the hurricane that is their lives.
Bancroft invests a lot of character work in the Wilbies but not much in others. While he does excel at making characters feel distinct with a couple of lines, few are as fleshed out as the Wilbies. Iz’s missing father gets more backstory than a number of other characters throughout the book, but other than the Wilbies there is only an industrialist, Victor Cholmondeley, whose backstory gets explored. A number of other characters that pop up in the book, like Iz’s mother, feel full of potential, as if more will come later, but little eventually comes of them. Since this is the opening of a new series, perhaps their later development is likely.
Like Bancroft’s previous first novel in a series, Senlin Ascends (2013), The Hexologists certainly features a lot of movement and a lot of fantastical locations. Indeed, one could think of Bancroft’s writing as a travel journal of his imagination. During their investigation, the Wilbies visit their own home, the library, the inside of a magic bag of holding, a factory, a mansion, a gambling boat, a magical shadow realm, and the afterlife. Each place is wonderful and fantastic in its own right. They’re also fraught with danger. In these places, the Wilbies encounter a dragon, a Lovecraftian horror, revolutionaries, alchemists, and the worst monsters of all, aristocrats—both old and new money.
In other words, Bancroft’s creativity mixes with this more traditional aspect of fantasy to wonderful effect. For example, he involves magic directly with the story from the start. Iz practices hexegy, one of the four main branches of magic. There’s also alchemy, necromancy, and wizardry, along with other lesser magic types. Of the main four, only two are practiced legally during the time of this book. Hexegy and alchemy are still common, but necromancy and wizardry are outlawed. They’re not gone, simply hidden. Alchemy powers the industrial nation; technology and societal advancement lie at its feet. Hexegy, on the other hand, is a capricious magic that fails more often than it succeeds. It requires the drawing of hexes, and though Iz is an experienced practitioner, her magic fails throughout the book.
This mixture of tones—the cozy, Holmes-esque mystery blended with traditional fantasy—is part of the novel’s appeal, though adjustment to the tone does take a few chapters. Indeed, The Hexologists occupies an odd spot when one tries to classify it. In a way, it feels like a fantasy version of a cozy mystery: having watched the Wilbies take part in an epic fight with an eldritch horror, for example, we return to the couple riding in the back of a horseless carriage. They are tired and wounded but not scarred. They seem to be able to shake off the horror and sit for a cup of tea. Warren’s cooking for their latest team member is constantly referenced throughout the book for a bit of a laugh. At the same time, as they progress in their investigation, they learn bit by bit that they’re mucking about with forces much greater than themselves. They learn secrets and hidden knowledge that, if brought to light, would shake the very foundations of their society. Yet the novel never darkens.
This whole book, however, is very much an opening chapter in a larger series. Bancroft is introducing readers to his new world, and though the book wraps up all the mysteries and plot threads by the end, Bancroft has sprinkled future opportunities throughout the novel. For example, Iz’s father left her a magical bag of holding upon his disappearance. Inside there exists an assortment of magical items and knowledge for the Wilbies to call upon in their time of need. It seems likely that further stories exist within the bag, and within the potential future search for Iz’s missing father—and these are just two of the wonderful possibilities that Bancroft has hidden throughout the book.
The Hexologists is a promising introduction to a new series from Josiah Bancroft. It features a lot of the style and creativity that made his first series so wonderful, applied to a new world with some more traditional fantasy aspects. This wonderful world—never quite what it seems to be at first—is only surpassed by the excellent characters at the center of it, who likewise leave behind their sources to grow into distinct individuals. Fans of Bancroft’s previous work won’t be disappointed, and this is an excellent starting point for those new to his work. It is now no secret that Bancroft is an innovative and imaginative genre writer, and The Hexologists opens a new, magical world for readers to explore.