i remember reading an essay by patrick mcmanus once in one of his earlier collections — they shoot canoes, don’t they? or maybe the grasshopper trap? — about reading habits, winter vs. summer. when winter came around again, you would be back reading the heavy thinkers: “jacqueline susann, erma bombeck…” and so forth. likewise, terry pratchett in the last continent, mentions that there is a rule that any book taken onto a beach for long enough and brought into contact with enough suntan lotion and coconut oil will inevitably morph into a tome with a title like the omega precedent or the alpha adventure and be almost entirely filled with weapons specifications.
i can’t say that this has happened to my reading list of late, but i did find it was a little tough lugging around marianne elliot’s latest tome on the history of catholics in ulster — it weighs as much as my water bottle! — and so, based largely on a recommendation from jo walton on tor.com, i went and found patricia wrede and caroline stevermer’s epistolary historical fantasy, sorcery & cecelia at the brookline public library.
spoiler warning: none, really. it’s too cute to spoiler for you and really too much fun to tear apart.
sorcery is a sweet, charming, fast read — you could get through it easily in an afternoon. the only real issue i had with it was the similarity of some of the names — the men all seemed to have the same number of syllables in their names and, until about half-way through the book, i didn’t feel their characters were distinct enough for me to keep them apart based on name alone. i solved this by memorizing which man was where — london or essex — and going by that!
the story is straightforward: the two narrator characters, both young women, are swapping letters from london and essex, describing the progress of one’s london season and the other’s adventures in the countryside. in this universe, magic is a real and socially acceptable phenomenon; one of the girls comments early on in the story about an academic and magically minded neighbor going up to london to be inducted into the royal college of wizards. (one is reminded, somehow, of the reclusive mr. norrell in jonathan strange & mr. norrell.) there are complications with attractive and surly young men, repressive aunts, difficult cousins, and the impossibility of persuading one’s relatives to shell out for the right kind of dresses. it’s sort of like jane austen with spellbooks. (definitely minus zombies, though.)
quite a lot of this book is like susannah clarke’s later fantasy — the time period (napeolonic wars); story elements (the wizardly neighbor who loves his books); the involvement with political affairs (magicians campaigning with wellington). but the similiarity doesn’t make this book boring and doesn’t make it seem as though clarke ripped her idea from wrede and stevermer.
it isn’t all light fluff and chat about dresses, although there is quite a bit of that. there’s a real sense of darkness and danger here; the consequences for messing about with little-understood magic or irritating a higher-level magician are made to feel quite real. i’d say the freakiness really gets going on page 21 when kate, in london, writes to her cousin of a woman she has stumbled upon:
Her skin was smooth and carefully painted, her eyes were dark and very hard. She smiled kindly at me and asked if I would take chocolate with her.
You and I often played at dolls’ tea party together, Cecy. I will never again remember such games with pleasure.
anyone who has read neil gaiman’s short story “don’t ask jack” should be totally aware that children’s toys are not great in pretty much any way, shape, or form — particularly when they show up in genre fiction like this!
there are two more books in the series — really! there are! i checked and doublechecked and they’re both published and available! — and i’m planning to track them down via library as soon as i can.