Wrede, Patricia C., and Caroline Stevermer: (01) Sorcery and Cecelia, or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot

After The Gnome’s Engine came Sorcery and Cecelia, or, the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer. This book was legendarily hard to find for quite a few years, and happily has now been reprinted in hardcover, with a sequel to come (details at a joint author webpage).

[ Interestingly, it’s been reprinted as a YA, right down to the listing of other books by the authors, which pointedly omits anything that wasn’t marketed as YA. Also, it’s got a new copyright date (2003), with a notice that it was originally printed in 1988 without the subtitle. I don’t see any differences in the text, so I’m a little baffled about giving it a new copyright date, but intellectual property law isn’t my field. ]

I’ve described this book before as “Freedom and Necessity without the Hegel.” I think that’s accurate if a touch flip, but I would be falling down on my book logging responsibilities if I left it at that.

First, this is an epistolary novel. Kate Talgarth has gone to London for the Season, and she corresponds with her cousin Cecelia Rushton, who is stuck at home in Essex. Second, it’s set in England in the 1800s, though about thirty years earlier than F&N; it’s also explicitly an alternate England, as the first letter makes clear; among Cecelia’s talk of parties and calling on the vicarage is this news:

Sir Hilary Bedrick has just been named to the Royal College of Wizards; the whole village is buzzing with the news. I suspect he was chosen because of that enormous library of musty old spellbooks at Bedrick Hall. He left yesterday for London, where he will be installed, but all of us expect great things when he returns. Except, of course, Aunt Elizabeth, who looks at me sideways and says darkly that magic is for heathens and cannibals, not for decent folk.

Yes indeed, we are in a Regency romance novel with magic (the same universe as Wrede’s Mairelon books). Kate goes to Sir Hilary’s investiture, goes through a little side door, and finds herself confronted with a perfectly horrible woman named Miranda, who thinks that Kate is actually someone named Thomas in disguise and tries to make her drink suspicious hot chocolate. Meanwhile, Cecy meets a new girl with an evil Stepmama who is, you guessed it, Miranda; and just what is Miranda’s relationship with Sir Hilary, anyway?

The plot of this is lovely and frothy, but it’s the narrators that really make it work. If The Gnome’s Engine was “genteel,” this is, quite simply, “charming.” For instance, Thomas seeks Kate out to thank her for springing Miranda’s trap. They naturally have further encounters, such as Thomas’s saving both her and, later, her cousin Oliver from being turned into trees:

“That’s part of the second reason I came here. You will agree you owe me some slight favor for rescuing you and your cod’s head of a cousin? I wish to make you an offer.”

I nodded as intelligently as I could and said, “Very well, I am very grateful to you for recovering dear, stupid Oliver. What sort of an offer?”

Thomas regarded me with an air of disbelief. “An offer of marriage, my dear half-wit. What other sort of offer did you expect?”

Cecy, I do think it is unfair. People in novels are fainting all the time, and I never can, no matter how badly I need to. Instead, I stared at him for what seemed like years, with the stupidest expression on my face, I’m sure, because I felt stupid. For I couldn’t imagine why he should say such an extraordinary thing. Finally I realized he was waiting for me to say something.

I said, “I can’t imagine why you should say such an extraordinary thing.”

Her cousin Cecelia is also excellent company, much inclined to saying things like “We simply must do something!” and then, well, doing it.

[ Aside: There is a conspicuous absence of parents in this, which I suppose is a point in favor of YA classification. Cecelia’s mother is dead, and she mentions her a few times; her father is immersed in his studies. Kate mentions her father just once, who appears to be dead; she doesn’t mention her mother at all that I can see. If I have the family tree right, Cecelia’s father had three sisters: Kate’s mother, Aunt Charlotte, and Aunt Elizabeth. What happened to Kate’s parents? ]

The only flaw in Sorcery and Cecelia is that I can’t re-read it too often. It’s quite short, and I’ve found if I try to read it too soon after the last time, everything’s too familiar and I can’t get into it. (Okay, another possible flaw: I’m not really clear how the Horrible Hollydean was involved.) It’s guaranteed to make me smile, which is why I’ve made the attempt. It’s amusing without being saccharine, light without being insubstantial, romantic without being sappy, and just plain fun. Highly recommended.

7 Comments

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  1. “Freedom and Necessity without the Hegel.”

    I don’t suppose you’d care to unpack that? Apart from some cosmetic similarities (they’re both epistolatory novels with elements of swashbuckling and romance, and set in England), I am failing to see how S&C is much like F&N.

    Maybe it’s because, IMO, Freedom and Necessity without the 18th-century philosophy is like Harry Potter without the magic– it might be something worth reading, but it would be something entirely unlike Freedom and Necessity.

    (I also have a deja vu feeling that we’ve had this discussion before, somewhere, but if we did, I’m blanking on what you said at the time.)

  2. They are epistolary, two-couple novels with witty, compelling characters, set in England in the 19th century, with fantasy elements. (I mean, how many of those are there?)

    By lack of Hegel I mean the relative lightness of _S&C_ (no politics, weighty moral dilemmas about means and ends, or serious character angst).

    I said it was a little flip.

  3. My Aunt bought me the book for Christmas, and I adore it; although I do have a few issues with it:
    -How exactly is Kate related to Cecilia, because if magic runs in the family, then why is Kate not a wizard?
    -Why is there a love interest between Oliver and Georgina? Gerogina is Kate’s sister, and Oliver is Cecy’s brother…. that makes Oliver and Georgina cousins, does it not?

  4. As I reconstructed the family tree at the time of reading, I believe Kate’s mother and Cecelia’s father were siblings, making Kate and Cecy first cousins.
    As for Kate’s magical abilities, read the next books. =>
    And yes, Oliver and Georgina are first cousins too. It’s my understanding that marriage of first cousins was not considered incest at the time (and indeed is apparently legal in a number of US states).

  5. Marriage of first cousins is still not really considered incest in Britain, and is legal. Though pretty rare, I’d imagine.
    It was less rare when people’s social circles were more circumscribed – Darwin married his first cousin, for example.

  6. Happened to see a copy at a local used book store and decided to give it a try.
    A fun read.
    The only problem is I’m starting to feel a need to buy the other two books in the series…
    Oh, Darn. :-)

  7. Michael, glad you liked!

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