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The series had at least five books, I think, that I borrowed as ebooks from the library. They were written in English and might have been intended for the upper side of Young Adult. The main character is a young male, late teens, born into aristocracy. The setting is an alternate Europe where there's technology, but magic exists as well, and is studied as science. The magic in question involves some classic concepts like Contagion (a piece of a whole retains a connection to the rest) and Similarity (similar objects can influence each other in relation to their similarity), but it's not entirely understood, and there's foreign and ancient magics that don't fit the current understanding. The protagonist, at the start of the book, performs or has performed, a ritual that has left his soul lightly tethered to his body, which means he has to be careful at how he uses his magic and also hampers his physical condition. He has a male friend, nonmagical, of more common descent, who goes on adventures with him, and is physically stronger.

I think the setting is an early 20th century Europe with the main character living in England, which is at war with Germany (Prussia?) throughout much of the series. He gets embroiled in events that initially seem to be the "evil empire" opposing him, but turn out to actually be masterminded by a magic scholar he'd looked up to, who is puppeting the two countries into a war in hopes of securing great power through harvesting the dying souls.

Some fragmented memories I recall:

  • One early bit of the book has him trying out for a position at a military school, marching (or running) with full kit, and his need to constantly keep his soul and body together leads to his physical collapse and failure at the test.
  • Early in the books, he creates a spell to cheat at shooting for an aristocratic hunt (something involving making the shot steer toward the target), but winds up using it to kill an assassin who's trying to kill the King (or maybe the Prince?).
  • There is a subplot involving anarchists who turn out to be fairly benign students who just object to the war. I think the foreign country they are at war with take advantage of these groups to mask the activities of their spies. Mainly, they printed up pamphlets and posted them.
  • He keeps running into an enemy spy who eventually becomes his ally by virtue of them both opposing the evil magician. He seems like an honorable fellow, but it's clear he can't be trusted if it comes to a situation where the two countries are at odds.
  • One of the adventures is set in France. It involves an artifact that is a literal golden heart of the city, a set of documents that may prove that the English royalty are the rightful monarchs of France, and a killer making people vanish who has discovered a way to capture souls on photographic plates of glass. I think at some point, he finds a way to make an entire castle tower fly by virtue of it having been part of a school of magic, and therefore a lot of magic is seeped into it.
  • At some point (I think in the first book), the protagonist gained a gem (a pearl?) from the walking stick of the enemy magician that is found to contain the soul of his sister, who had been disembodied in a magical accident. She's a bit mad from being trapped in there for many years, and I think the enemy magician had been putting other souls in there to feed her, something the protagonists learn when they get sucked into there. I want to say that the place was experienced as a giant library.
  • Another adventure involves them foiling an attempt to tunnel into the Royal Mint. While traveling through the caverns associated with the tunnels, he comes upon something very much like the Rosetta Stone (or maybe it was supposed to be the Rosetta Stone) that has the same message in multiple languages. It comes up in more than one book as some of that culture's magic is encoded on there. During this book, I remember the villain takes an heirloom from the hero with a taunting message that it's only fair since the hero has something of his (the pearl).
  • The protagonist's mother is a prominent researcher, which comes up a few times in the books, I think including a trip to the Antarctic to study birds. There's a few occasions (I think, including in France) where he's amazed that people know his family for his mother rather than his father, the aristocrat.
  • Somewhere in there, there's a peace conference where satchels containing massive storms are scattered around and he has to disarm them, with it being tricky in part because the spells were made to be unstable so that they'd go off on their own if tampered with or left on their own long enough.
  • Eventually, he manages to fight in the war. I remember a sabotaged train virtually eliminating magical support in the area, a telegraph system that gets infected by an electricity elemental, and him winding up going deep into enemy territory. Also, at some point, bombs are dropped that create an anti-magic field, used to let the enemy storm a fort while its defenses are down.
  • At some point, while on a train headed into enemy territory, he's mistaken by someone for someone else hired for The Resistance and escapes the train by jumping out of an open door while it's going over a bridge, and improvising a spell to let himself descend safely.
  • One of the clues that lets them find the enemy headquarters involves a green stone mined in the enemy country, with a massive piece of it being part of the villain's plan. The village in question is basically kept under lock and key and the people enslaved under threat of death or torture.
  • The secret weapon of the opposing enemy army involves golems powered by the tortured souls (and I think parts of the brains) of captured soldiers. At the enemy headquarters where he discovers this, they wind up escaping by animating some giant statues of animals. I believe they escape in a concrete elephant.
  • At some point, either before or after that book, photographs of the protagonist and the main villain shaking hands are circulated, with the message being that he's changed sides. I remember the protagonist's father publicly disavowed him, but his son was certain that his father knew he hadn't switched sides, and was instead using the situation for every bit of political gain he could, playing the part of the father sorrowful that his son had turned against him, but all the more fired up to save England.
  • The enemy magician did an experiment much like the protagonist, but more successfully, which means their souls are entangled in some way. At one point, the protagonist was getting visions of what his enemy was doing, and I don't remember whether it turned out to be willful misinformation by the enemy. I do think that it wound up leading into how the protagonist finally defeated him.
  • Both of the protagonist young men wind up with females in their lives who are complementary to them. For the main character, it's the daughter of a researcher who's disappeared. She's smart, but is also more physically capable, having studied martial arts from the Orient. For the sidekick, it's a foreign girl (maybe French... I want to say her name might have been Sophie?) who's magically brilliant, who I think they wind up meeting during the time when they're enlisted.
  • Zeppelins are in heavy usage in the war, although I think ornithopters are starting to take over due to being more nimble. At one point, they befriend a pilot with a very bushy mustache who shows up at least a few other times in the books. I remember there also being a scene where the hero's ornithopter is disabled, and he improvises a spell to make it more birdlike to allow it to land, I think with it having a permanent change to the structure.
  • At some point, the King dies (with, I think, some suggestion of foul play) and his son takes up the throne. They are aware that the protagonist is a valuable magical asset. I have this vague impression that the protagonist was, at some point, used in an attempt on the Prince, but that the Prince specifically sends the guard away and greets the protagonist to indicate that they have every faith in his loyalty.
  • I'm a bit hazy on how long magic had been present in the series. I think that it was set up where magic had been studied scientifically by Europe for at least a few decades, but that other cultures, such as Sumerians and Egyptians, had their own magic which was poorly understood, and was much older. I think the protagonist's initial spell involved an Egyptian spell.
  • At some point (I think in the first book), the main character goes to see a famous stage magician perform, and is disappointed when actual magic is used, because he wanted to see something more exciting than the regular magic he sees every day.

The books were probably about 200 pages in length. I remember the cover art being brightly colored, but maybe only showing a single character, albeit drawn in a realistic style with sufficient detail. I read them in the 2010s, I think all of the books by 2019.

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    Interesting, sounds kind of like an updated Lord Darcy. Mar 1, 2021 at 19:17
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    @OrganicMarble - yeah, the first few sentences had me thinking of the Lord Darcy stories, but it quickly diverged... Mar 1, 2021 at 19:28
  • Reminds me of the Castle Falkenstein series -- never read them, but I played in a GURPS campaign in that setting. Steam-powered hydrogen dirigibles?
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 1, 2021 at 19:33

2 Answers 2

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OK, found this one by accident, sort of. While trying various search terms, I fatfingered fantasy novel series magicengland "failed magical experiment" into the search bar, and it came up a book title that sounded familiar, Heart of Gold, second book in the The Laws of Magic series by Michael Pryor, which comprises six books. Synopsis of the first book, Blaze of Glory:

Front cover of Blaze of Glory

Aubrey Fitzwilliam is the son of a prominent ex-prime minister. He's also brilliant at magic, but he's stuck at military school. At least he has his best friend, George, there to back him up. George would follow Aubrey anywhere - and with Aubrey's talent for thinking up daring schemes that will get them both in trouble, that's no easy thing to do.

At a royal hunting party, the boys discover a golem, a magical creature built to perform one task: to kill Prince Albert. Aubrey and George are hailed as heroes for foiling the murder attempt - but who sent the golem, and why? Aubrey is far too curious to let the authorities handle this one, and he and George start investigating . . .

The first book has him encountering his nemesis, Dr. Mordecai Tremaine, in the course of foiling the assassination attempt on Albert, and meeting Caroline, his love interest, the aforementioned action girl and son of a missing magical researcher. The second book, Heart of Gold, has him traveling to the France analogue, and indeed seeking the "Heart of Gold" that is part of the magical basis of the city. From there, it pretty much tracks as I remember based on the summaries.

Without accidentally removing that space, these results don't come up for me. I think part of the problem is that it's not England and Prussia, but "Albion" and "Holmland" because it's an alternate universe kind of thing, so my searches kept failing because they didn't find the keywords I was looking for.

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The description reminds me very much of Castle Falkenstein. The books were published in the 1990s, and though they don't seem to be available in ebook format at this time, they might have been at some point (or some of them might be, and others not).

Like many "big" SF and Fantasy settings of the 1990s, Castle Falkenstein was a shared world, with many authors writing novels based in part on a role playing game (or the game was based on the stories, I've never been sure which). In addition to the stand-alone game, there was an extensive GURPS sourcebook, possibly more than one, and it's from playing in a Falkenstein GURPS campaign that I'm familiar with the setting.

At its core, the setting revolves around a steampunk-with-sorcery version of WWI, but in the 1870s. Airships (lifted by hydrogen, powered by steam engines -- which must have been exciting) are the primary form of air power (though heavier than air craft came along late in the setting). The war mentioned involved many of the German states, most specifically Bavaria (Bayerne) and Prussia and opponents.

The setting involved magic, Difference Engines and Analytical Engines (mechanical computers -- Charles Babbage was a character, at least in the GURPS setting), warfare, heroism -- in fact, it was one of the early major examples of the Steampunk genre.

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  • I'm not saying you're wrong, but golems powered by the tortured souls of prisoners of war sounds a lot darker than I'd ever expect from DeChancie. :)
    – DavidW
    Mar 1, 2021 at 20:22
  • As I admitted above, my only familiarity with the setting is from playing GURPS in it. Have not read the books. Not even one of them. Nor have I read anything else by DeChancie, that i recall.
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Mar 3, 2021 at 0:16

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