The Hexologists by Josiah Bancroft
Orbit, p/b, £9.99
Review by Tori Borne
‘“The king wishes to be cooked alive,” the royal secretary said(…)’ is the bizarre and curious opening statement of Josiah Bancroft’s 2023 novel The Hexologists, a charming ‘whodunnit’ tale of royal conspiracy, political intrigue and magic.
Our protagonists are Iz (Isolde) and Warren Wilby, practitioners of the increasingly undervalued magical form ‘hexegy’, who utilise their hexes and ‘portalmanteau’ – a magical bag that leads to a plethora of conveniently useful magical artefacts – to soothe their clients’ woes. They also happen to be a happily married couple for whom traditional gender roles have no bearing whatsoever.
Generally unwilling to help the aristocracy – and a tad critical of the monarchy – the Wilbies begrudgingly accept a case from the royal secretary, who is at a loss to his liege’s malady: the desire to be baked into a cake. In their search for the cause of the king’s sudden aspiration to become a patisserie as well as a letter from a seemingly scorned bastard child, the Wilbies begin to uncover a monumental secret which may just disrupt the entire nation…
Josiah Bancroft has an impressively fluid style of writing. A perfect balance of almost literary prose and innuendo, I found this a delightfully written book and was immediately drawn into the world in which The Hexologists is set. The world itself is Victorianesque, a capital city undergoing industrialisation and reaping the rewards of scientific advancement – albeit to the detriment of the magical practises which have begun to fall out of favour with the public. As someone who is partial to the merging of science and magic, I loved Bancroft’s coalescence and reconciliation of magic and science through the school of alchemy – the one school which appears to be thriving due to its ability to integrate with and actually contribute to industrialisation.
In addition to a carefully crafted and vivid world – aided by the handy map prefacing the novel but undoubtedly built through Bancroft’s prowess with a pen – we have two likeable protagonists to carry the story as it progresses: the Wilbies. Iz and Warren’s relationship is sweet; they’re a likeable married couple who refuse to adhere to gender roles and have a healthy relationship. Iz appears cold, the intelligentsia of the duo who is more concerned with getting the hard facts and solving the case. Warren is the empath, often extending sympathies to the clients for their ailments and always offering them a beverage and biscuit whilst they discuss business. Whilst generally, this dynamic is well executed, it at times towed the line between playfully exaggerated characteristics and caricatures, risking the depth of characterisation of the two Wilbies for the sake of portraying their flipped gender roles. Bancroft gets away with this, however, thanks to the overall tone of the novel leaning towards the humorous.
The core mystery novel will keep you invested thanks to its many tricks and turns as the truth slowly unravels – and just when you think you’ve finally gotten the truth, Bancroft ends the novel with another plot twist. Whilst I felt there were some instances that unnecessarily prolonged the advancement of the plot for the sake of world-building, this was easily forgiven as the people and culture of Berbiton (the city in which our mystery is set) are genuinely fascinating and well-developed.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and look forward to reading the next instalment of the series. Those who enjoy Victorian settings with magical-realism will delight in the world that Bancroft has conjured up and lose themselves within his lucid descriptions.