Desert Isle Keeper
Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot
This book is a true Desert Island Keeper for me: After reading a online recommendation in 2000 and recalling that I had read a few of Patricia C. Wrede’s fantasy novels years before and enjoyed them tremendously, I went and ordered a copy of the first edition (the only one then available) for more than 50 dollars – my most expensive second-hand book to that date, and still ranking fourth. When Sorcery and Cecelia was republished three years later (it remains in print today), I did not rue my earlier purchase, but was pleased that such an excellent novel would again be available to a greater audience.
This is an epistolary novel set in an alternative Regency England that is like the real thing, only with magicians as accepted members of society. Especially the alternative London is beautifully crafted with a society that includes real people of the period (and stock characters of many a Regency novel) like Sally Jersey and Countess Lieven. Other real personalities of the period are given an amusing twist: Here Caroline Lamb is the famous poetess who wrote The Corsair, and Lord Byron her ex-lover who tries to win her back, and the real-life printer William Camden is made into a wizard.
Kate and Cecelia are cousins who exchange letters about their adventures. Kate, who goes to London for her first season, accidentally stumbles across a magical trap that has been set by the scheming Miranda Griscomb for Thomas, the sardonic and eccentric Marquis of Schofield. To keep both Kate and himself safe from Miranda, Thomas proposes a pretend engagement (yes, I know where that leads – but it is done with such charm here!).
Meanwhile Cecelia (Cecy) discovers strange goings-on in Essex: There is something unnatural about the way that Miranda’s stepdaughter Dorothea attracts all the young men in the neighborhood, and something strange in the way that Mr. James Tarleton, former aide-de-camp to Wellington, spies on both Dorothea and neighbouring wizard Sir Hilary. Both Cecy and James are attacked by magic, and Cecy takes to producing charm-bags for all her family, thus discovering that she has hitherto unsuspected magical talents.
Miranda’s and Sir Hilary’s plans are of the darkest magic and truly despicable. It takes all of Kate’s and Cecy’s ingenuity (not to mention the assistance of Thomas, James, and other characters) to foil their intentions.
The style is ironic and very funny and often had me laugh aloud. Gems like “When Mr. Tarleton and I were quite finished snubbing each other with magnificent unconcern, Mrs. Porter escorted us to the side door,” are even more amusing in context.
In spite of the fairly large cast, Wrede and Stevermer manage to create three-dimensional characters. Both girls are clever, but only Cecy is self-confident. Kate lets herself be bullied by her aunt and sister, then slowly becomes more independent and self-reliant. Although we only get to know the heroines’ thoughts, the growth in feeling that Thomas and James experience is presented in little glimpses (which the heroines overlook and misconstrue, to a certain point, anyway). Because Kate is the girl more in need of rescuing, reading about the development of the romance between her and Thomas is heart-warming, especially as Thomas is anything but the typical Prince Charming.
The authors explain in an afterword that the novel came to be written as a “letter game” (a few basics about plot and characters were agreed upon; then the letters were written in turns, so that each writer needed to fit her ideas to what the last letter she received contained; later the letters were edited to that everything was in logical order), but when reading, I never felt the novel to be anything but homogeneous – every little detail fits beautifully, and the plotting is exquisite. Each cousin experiences her own set of adventures, but they are interrelated by the same set of villains and lots and lots of information aquired in one place, related in writing and immensely useful to solving the problems in the other place.
Though this book is classified as a Young Adult novel, I think all lovers of the Regency and fantasy fiction would do well to discover this gem. You are in for a treat.