Friday, March 27, 2020

Birthday Review: The Grand Tour, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, plus capsules of two Wrede novels

Today is Patricia Wrede's birthday. She has long been one of the most enjoyable purveyors of mostly YA fantasy, generally with a light, humorous touch. I haven't seen anything from her in several years, but her sometime collaborator, Caroline Stevermer, has a new book, The Glass Magician, due in about 10 days, following a similar period of publication silence, so there's still hope. Wrede was also a voice of particular reason in the old days at the Usenet newsgroup, and she maintains a blog now that offers plenty of strong writing advice, Wrede on Writing.

In her honor, then, here's a review I wrote for SF Site of one of Wrede's collaborations with Stevermer, followed by a tiny capsule look at two of Wrede's Enchanted Forest novels.

The Grand Tour, by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer

a review by Rich Horton

Back in 1988, Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer published a paperback original novel that originated in a "letter game" the two played. Each took a character and wrote letters to the other as if written by their character. The result was a novel in letters, Sorcery and Cecelia. Over the years that novel became something like a cult classic. Those (like me) who were fortunate enough to have bought it on first release recommended it to other readers, but for some time it was hard to obtain. But the prospect of a sequel finally persuaded a publisher to reprint it, and indeed Harcourt's Magic Carpet imprint has released both Sorcery and Cecelia and The Grand Tour simultaneously.

The Grand Tour becomes one of three notable fantasies from 2004 set in the 19th or early 20th Century in an alternate historical England in which magic works. (The others being Stevermer's fine solo novel A Scholar of Magics and Susanna Clarke's brilliant Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell.) Of these it is undoubtedly the lightest in tone, but that is no complaint, simply a reflection of its intentions. In Sorcery and Cecelia two cousins in Regency England, Kate and Cecy, exchanged letters which told of their romances, and of certain magical difficulties, to do with Cecelia's apparent latent sorcerous abilities, with Kate's intended's own such abilities, and with a nasty villain wizard who wishes to grab more power for himself. In the new book, Kate has married Thomas, Lord Schofield, and become Lady Schofield, and Cecy has married James Tarleton. The four are setting off to the continent for a joint honeymoon tour. Instead of letters, the book is told in alternating sections from Kate's "commonplace book" (in this case mostly a diary) and from a deposition Cecy gives after the events of the novel.

Almost immediately trouble strikes in various forms. A mysterious lady gives them an alabaster flask of unknown significance. Kate keeps losing gloves (but then, she is clumsy). The ceiling falls on their dinner with Beau Brummell. A thief invades their rooms. Then, on the way to Paris, they are robbed by highwaymen.

In Paris they meet with the Duke of Wellington and it becomes clear that a variety of ancient objects connected with royalty are being stolen. Their mission, then, is to track down whoever is responsible for these thefts, and to try to figure out what they are up to. This is 1817, not long after Napoleon's final defeat, so it is not a surprise that Bonapartists figure in the plot. At any rate, the foursome (and servants) wend their way to Italy via a difficult passage through Switzerland, and it is in Florence, Venice and Rome that things come to a head.

This is an enjoyable book with a set of very pleasant characters. Still, it is not quite the delight that was Sorcery and Cecelia. One problem is simply that the main characters have already met and married their husbands -- there is no romance plot to help maintain the reader's interest. Another problem is that the revelations of the nature of sorcery are less "new" in this book than the original. Put simply -- this book is a sequel, and many of its problems are can be laid at the door of sequelitis. All that said, while I would certainly read Sorcery and Cecelia first, The Grand Tour is a fine novel, well worth your reading time.

[A third volume, The Mislaid Magician, appeared in 2006.]

Capsule Reviews of Dealing with Dragons and Searching for Dragons

The first two of Wrede’s Enchanted Forest series, YA fantasy, very nicely told stories.  The first features an atypical princess, Cimorene, who, disgusted by the boring details of life as a princess, runs off to be captured by a dragon, then has to fight off the princes trying to rescue her, and eventually helps the dragons fend off a conspiracy by some evil wizards.  The second features the atypical young King of the Enchanted Forest, Mendanbar, tired of dealing with boring princesses looking to marry him, and burdened by the duties of his Kingship, which he takes very seriously, who sets off to solve the mystery of a burned out section of the Forest: possibly caused by dragons?  At least, that's what a wizard tells him.  No prizes for guessing who the real bad guys are, nor for guessing which atypical princess he eventually meets.  The delight in these stories is Wrede’s voice, light-toned and intelligent, and the off-hand jokes about various fairy tale cliches.  Very enjoyable indeed.

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