Part mystery, all fantasy, a little bit romance and wholly whimsical, Charlie N. Holmberg’s Keeper of Enchanted Rooms is a great read for a cozy winter day curled in front of a fireplace with a steaming cup of hot chocolate.
Writer Merritt Fernsby is stunned by his good fortune when his estranged grandmother bequeaths him an entire house - Whimbrel House - on its very own island in Narragansett Bay. After his father disowned him when he was eighteen, Merritt has had no contact with his family, so a chance to set down roots in his very own home holds all kinds of appeal. He waves away the solicitor’s warning that Whimbrel House is known to be haunted and hustles off to check out his new property. However, it turns out there might have been something to that rumor of ghosts and spirits, because Whimbrel House definitely has a mind of its own. Furniture seems to melt, walls undulate and move, ceilings drip blood and paint, and, worst of all, the house won’t let Merritt leave.
Enter Hulda Larkin, professional wrangler of magical properties. Employed by the Boston Institute for the Keeping of Enchanted Rooms (BIKER for short), Hulda is an expert at rooting out the source of a home’s magic and, if necessary, helping its owners learn to live in harmony with it. BIKER sends her to Whimbrel House to help its new owner get settled and to arrange a staff of people used to dealing with magically-infused houses. She arrives just in time to save Merritt from what seems to be a house intent on killing him. Hulda assures Merritt that Whimbrel House just needs a firm hand and some understanding. Merritt has his doubts, but Hulda does seem able to keep Whimbrel House under control, so he agrees to give her – and the house – a chance.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Hulda and Merritt learn the secrets of Whimbrel House and put together a small staff to keep things running smoothly. Hulda is a by-the-book rule-follower who has long ago given up any prospect of romantic love. She gains fulfillment in her job and works hard to keep her relationships professional at all times. Merritt is amused by Hulda’s stiff demeanor - she insists on his calling her Mrs. Larkin even though she’s never been married – but is thoroughly impressed by her ability to understand his new home. As they get to know each other, Hulda and Merritt’s walls come down, and their business arrangement begins to morph into something like friendship and maybe even more.
But what neither of them realizes is that a dark force from Hulda’s past has set its sights on taking the house’s magic for its own while extracting revenge on the woman that he believes betrayed him in the worst way.
I wasn’t sure what to expect when I picked up this title, and the first few chapters kept me guessing. Whimbrel House’s seemingly malevolent actions towards Merritt when he first arrives had me thinking maybe I’d picked up a scary, gothic story. But Hulda’s matter-of-fact reaction and attitude soon reveal that the story is far more fanciful than sinister.
The magic system of this world is very unique, if somewhat complicated. Set in mid-1800 New England (and a bit in England), magic is ubiquitous in the form of self-propelling “kinetic” trams and boats, but is generally considered an endangered commodity as the amount of magic in the general population has been declining for years. People and inanimate objects have the ability to perform “spells” that reside in specific areas of magical influence, meaning that no one person has the ability to do every kind of magic there is. Keeping track of which kind of magic resides in which specific area and what, exactly, it allows someone to do made my head spin a bit, but the details really aren’t critical to the story.
Holmberg handles her villain in an interesting way. They’re first introduced as a very sympathetic character, and their decline into darkness seems understandable given the circumstances. You can see why they become what they become, even if you cannot condone it and fear for the safety of Hulda and Merritt when they become targets.
The romance between Merrick and Hulda is glacially slow. In fact, giving this book a “kisses” sensuality rating is a gross overstatement. But their relationship progresses naturally and steadily throughout the story, and you certainly root for this couple to get together. Unfortunately, a stupid move by Merritt near the end plus his failure to recognize how hurtful that move might be to Hulda kept this from being an A read for me.
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed this book and recommend it to anyone who’s looking for a sprinkle of magic in their story. A sequel to Keeper of Enchanted Rooms titled Heir of Uncertain Magic is due for release in April of 2023, and I’m looking forward to reading more of Hulda and Merritt and Whimbrel House.
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