Magic and superstition swirl around the world of William Shakespeare. While priests at the time decried belief in fairies, the practice of witchcraft, and women speaking on stage, the theater world managed to carve out space where anything was possible.
To this day it is bad luck for actors to say “MacBeth” if they find themselves cast in the play, for fear of the curse that swirls around the production. Similarly, the heroine of Brittany N. Williams’ debut novel That Self-Same Metal is faced with a theater company, a world, on the brink of chaos.
Sixteen-year-old Joan Sands is a gifted craftswoman who creates and upkeeps the stage blades for William Shakespeare’s acting company, The King’s Men. Joan’s skill with her blades comes from a magical ability to control metal — an ability gifted by her Head Orisha, Ogun. Because her whole family is Orisha-blessed, the Sands family have always kept tabs on the Fae presence in London. Usually that doesn’t involve much except noting the faint glow around a Fae’s body as they try to blend in with London society, but lately, there has been an uptick in brutal Fae attacks. After Joan wounds a powerful Fae and saves the son of a cruel Lord, she is drawn into political intrigue in the human and Fae worlds. Swashbuckling, romantic, and full of the sights and sounds of Shakespeare’s London, this series starter delivers an unforgettable story — and a heroine unlike any other.
As a scholar of the Middle Ages, and a theater obsessive, I’ve often run up against pushback when attempting to discuss diversity in Europe at any point before the 1990s. While we have evidence of people like the “Ivory Bangle Lady,” a Roman-era Black woman whose grave was discovered in York, England in 1901, most historical novels set in England are usually devoid of characters of color, unless the lead has traveled to an “exotic” land. I was delighted to read a work of fiction that portrays the richness of the metropolitan hub that was London in Tudor, and later Jacobean, England. Joan Sands is surrounded by people of varying backgrounds, means, and abilities, who bring life to a story brimming with action and intrigue.
Joan and her family are blessed by the Orishas, the gods of the Yoruba religion hailing from West Africa. Each member displays a skill tied to their Orisha, Joan’s being the ability to control metal. Her twin brother, while also Orisha-blessed, made me chuckle aloud with his flare for the dramatics as a stage performer. He brought a surprising amount of levity to a story with many unexpected turns and moments of sorrow. Brittany N. Williams has a theater background, which shines through in her ability to transport the reader to the stage, where magic and mischief swirl around our protagonist. Joan lives in London with her parents and twin, James, where they guard the world from the fairies at the behest of the Orishas. She and her family are the door that swings open and shut on the fae realm when needed, and Joan learns that everything hinges on her ability to serve her calling.
The author made me feel the looming, ever-growing nature of London in the era. When King James I came into power, following Elizabeth I, the English crown had acquired the American colonies, had unified with Scotland, and the people were living in an increasingly crowded world. While reading I could feel the towering buildings and just how easy it would be for dark forces to tip the scale with the slightest push.
While I mentioned MacBeth earlier, it’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream that mirrors the perilous circumstances Joan must navigate. This is more than fitting, as the play explores transformation, the fickle nature of humans, and the blurring of our world with one just out of sight. Without tiptoeing too far into the realm of spoilers, it’s safe to say the parallels are more than surface for Joan.
At times I found Joan a bit too prickly, a bit too unyielding, but that can perhaps be blamed on her connection to Ogun. He wouldn’t forge someone that bends easily to the whims of the world around them. Still, a lesser heroine would have crumbled under the weight of the journey Brittany N. Williams needed her to undertake. I will say it was a relief to have a character to root for who wasn’t a blushing Tudor rose.
It was exhilarating to follow Joan’s journey as a swordmaster, to see her in control of her own body and respected for what she could do through skill and confidence. I never truly felt that Joan needed to prove herself to many of her supporters, whether she believed that or not as a character. To see her surrounded by a cast of characters with full lives and an equal thirst for adventure kept the book firmly in my hands until it was over. Now, we await the sequel.
That Self-Same Metal (The Forge and Fracture Saga, Book 1) is available now for preorder and releases on April 25, 2023.