Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Young Bluestockings Book Club reads Mairelon the Magician

Welcome! I hope you were all able to find a copy of our first selection, Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede!

This is our first meeting, so we’re trying to figure out what will work best…this time around, I’m going to post some thoughts and talking points that I hope will spur conversation…please feel free to react to those and/or to post your own thoughts. Because this is a teen history blog, my comments are going to focus mostly on the historical aspects of the story…but you are certainly welcome to discuss any aspect of the book you wish. It’s a snowy day here so I’ll be sticking close to the computer today to help keep the conversation flowing well, but comments can continue all week!

So—here we go!

There’s magic in the streets of London,
there’s sorcery in the village lanes;
there’s a plot that has all of Society talking
in an England that never was,
but should have been….

That’s on the back cover of my copy, and in my opinion gives the perfect introduction to the story in Mairelon the Magician. I obviously love stories that combine magic and history. But what I love even more is when the history part is well done. Regina and I haven’t much discussed the underclasses in 19th century society because our books have featured aristocratic characters. MtM explores the underside of society with Kim, an orphaned street-kid doing her best to pass herself off as a boy in order to escape being forced into prostitution. She’s nearly 17, however, and it’s getting harder to keep up the masquerade. She’s a top-notch lock-pick and an accomplished pick-pocket, but a life of crime isn’t what she wants either…so her life is fast approaching a turning point.

It turns in an entirely unexpected direction when she is taken in by Mairelon, a street magician whose wagon she’s been hired to search for a mysterious silver bowl…and so we are launched into a lively, funny combination of mystery and fantasy, with a strong dollop of Georgette Heyer comedy leavening the whole.

Wrede makes good use of the colorful slang of the London poor, weaving it into Kim’s speech in a way that readers unfamiliar with it can still guess at the meanings (if there are any words you aren’t sure about, ask…and if you want to learn more about the language, check out The 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue a portion of which can be viewed for free on Google Books.)

I'm also giving points for Wrede's depiction of travel. There's a lot of it in the story, done both on foot and by carriage--and Wrede makes it clear that getting anywhere takes a while, that horses have to be rested and not abused (note that on their way out of London, Kim and Mairelon and Hutch walk alongside their wagon for most of the trip in order to spare their horses). Yes, this indeed happened--even on stage coaches, where passengers would be asked to get out and walk on steep or deeply muddy roads, to prevent overstraining the horses.

I also deeply enjoy how magic is woven into this Regency setting: magic is an acknowledged, accepted part of the world, there's a Royal College of Wizards, and Mairelon, a.k.a. Richard Merrill, is one of several wizards engaged in spying on the French in the British fight against Napoleon (more recently Susannah Clarke has used a similar theme--magic in the Napoleonic Wars--to hilarious and wonderful effect in one of my favorite books, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.) I think the combination of magic and the 19th century works so well because to us, the 19th century really is another world, and having magic operate there is easier to imagine than, say, magic in the post-world war era. What do you think?

But what I think I love most about this book is the homage it pays to Georgette Heyer's sparkling Regency novels. Lady Granleigh, Marianne, Freddy and his friends could all have stepped out of one of her books; Renee D'Auber sounds delightfully like Leonie in These Old Shades, and the final chaotic (but beautifully orchestrated) showdown in the Sons of the New Dawn's lodge could stand beside the equally chaotic but perfect ending in The Grand Sophy.

So--good historical detail, a finely crafted mystery with enough clues salted in to make it solveable by a careful reader but not too obvious, and plenty of sheer fun. That's what I think. What about you? What worked for you in this story? Did the 19th century world in MtM draw you in? Would you recommend this book to others, and why?


bethany said...

my mom and I have read almost all of the patricia wrede books and this one one of my favorites. I am still a begginer learner in history so I probubly didn't get some reffrences to that era, but I loved the charecters and the situations. when I read the library scene for the first time I stopped and read it out loud to my brother because I thought it was so funny. I did the same thing at the ending. the secual is really good too and finishes up some lose ends people might be wondering about. (sorry for my bad spellings and blabbering but that's what a book club is for, right? talking about your favorite books to people who probubly care more then your baby sister does):)

Rachel said...

For some reason, I found it easier to read than Heyer's novels. As much as I applaud her dedication to historic accuracy in setting, wording, etc., I found her use of slang to be over the top. (Maybe it's just me!) But I found the slang in MtM to be just enough without overpowering the story.

I loved the story of Kim and Mairelon and their misadventures along the way to find the other pieces to the Saltash set.

My favorite characters, besides the main ones, were the members of the Sons of the New Dawn. I couldn't stop laughing at their antics.

Thanks for recommending MtM as the first club book ;)

Marissa Doyle said...

Bethany, I'm glad we started out with a favorite--it's one of mine, too.

Rachael, a lot of people find the slang in Georgette Heyer a little too much--but like most things, you learn the meanings and get used to it (and not all of GH is strictly accurate--she's known to have introduced inaccuracies on purpose, to try to trip up some of the many authors who were, ahem, "borrowing" from her heavily.) I agree, though, that Ms. Wrede achieved a pretty good balance of slangy enough to give a flavor but not so slangy as to be confusing.

Amy DeTrempe said...

I have not read the book, but now I would like to.

QNPoohBear said...

I really liked the 19th century details and the screwball comedy library scene but overall, the plot was confusing and there were too many characters. I do have a soft spot for lovable idiots like Freddy Meredith though. I started to reread it to get all the characters straight but I haven't finished yet. Maybe I'll have a second opinion once I am done.

Regina Scott said...

I really enjoyed the book too! This was my first time reading it, but I noticed so many things we've touched upon here, and others we likely will in the future. :-)

Marissa mentioned the language, thieve's cant. But more than the language, I found it interesting that Mairelon was so careful to teach Kim how to use the language in different situations. In the 19th century, language marked you--what part of the country you came from, what strata of society you lived in (My Fair Lady, anyone?). Language could help you fit in, or keep you out.

Given our new series on Where the Boys Are, I also found it fun to see that where the aristocratic lads in the book went was so common to our vision of the 19th century: racing curricles, hanging out in clubs (real or imaginary!), studying antiquities, spying for England, chasing girls, wagering, and dancing.

Looking forward to reading more about your thoughts, gang!

Sylvia said...

Patricia Wrede is one of my favorite writers. I love the sparkle in her prose and the vivid characterization. Her skill in introducing unfamiliar slang through context comes, I think, from her experience in fantasy, where quite often the entire world is unfamiliar at the beginning and has to be painted in.

Bethany's right, there is a sequel -- Magician's Ward -- which is, to my mind, even better. In collaboration with Caroline Stevermer she has also written another series of three Regency epistolary novels. I've only read the first one of these, Sorcery and Cecelia. It's wonderful, and I'm sure the other two must be, too.

ChaChaneen said...

Hi Ladies! I really wanted to like this book after I originally researched it to buy it and read many of it's good reviews but.... This was just an ok read for me. It felt very much like a young author book but I don't recommend it. I got confused a couple of times when other characters were introduced, and they were numerous but it came together at the end when they are revealed but if I focused just on Kim and Richard then I was okay. I read there is a sequel to this and it's primary focus is just them and it sounds like I would probably enjoy that more so I am going to keep my eye out for that as that my change my opinion if this book was a introduction to them. Thank you for talking about the language too, someone above said theives cant was the name... again that threw me and stopped the reading flow mentally. I'd have to stop and start over again. Overall, a perfect choice for you to have picked with young teens and the history of the war. Melissa I know you lurve your magic so I can see how this was on your list of favorites to choose from for the group.

My favorite part of this was just participating with the group here knowing we were all reading together! We can agree to disagree and that's what I enjoy about book clubs!

Looking forward to our next book!

Marissa Doyle said...

Ooh, good discussion going!

Re the slang and thieves' cant--for those of you who found it interrupted your flow, do you think this book needed a glossary, the way some SF/fantasy novels have? Did you eventually get used to it, or did it continue to pull you out?

One little detail I forgot to mention that pleased me--Kim's marking time by singing verses of a song in her head. What a clever way for someone without a watch to do ths!

Tricia Tighe said...

Enjoyed this book, even the second time around. A glossary would have been nice, but even more helpful for me would have been a cast of characters list as are in some British period mysteries. I did get confused a few times and thought Wrede could have ditched a few characters. The library burglary scene was indeed like a screwball comedy, but I had to flip back a few pages to remind myself who Lady Granleigh was as opposed to Mrs. Bramingham.

The thieve's cant didn't bother me, even when I didn't quite understand it. For me it helped portray the setting and Kim's character. I also enjoyed Kim's song for marking time and wonder whether it was the author's invention or the result of research of the period.

I think Wrede did a fabulous job with Renee D'Auber's dialogue. She captured a native French speaker's version of English beautifully.

I'm a big fan of both Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer and hope we will discuss SORCERY AND CECILIA. It's one of my all time favorites!

Marissa Doyle said...

That's a good idea, Tricia--I also sometimes found myself confusing Lady Granleigh and Mrs. Bramingham.
I have a special fondness for books with lots of characters and plot threads that intertwine and eventually get tied neatly together at the end, so you can see where I'm coming from. :)

QNPoohBear said...

I liked it a little better the second time when I knew the story and the characters. I really liked the thieves' cant and even when I didn't understand everything, it made Kim more realistic and creates a setting. Like others, I think there were just too many characters and that's the book's major fault.

I'm going to grab the sequel tomorrow.
I LOVE Sorcery and Cecelia, but the sequels weren't as good.

ChaChaneen said...

I've been thinking about your question and I do think a glossary would have helped me. It made me think of the new editions of Jane Austen's novels and how they have the glossary meanings footnoted on the bottom of the page to explain the particular word and it greatly helps me.

Vicky said...

I finally got around to reading Mairelon the Magician and it's sequel, The Magician's Ward (better late than never?). One of my favorite characters that no one has mentioned is Jonathan Aberford. Someone who is that clueless, and yet thinks he knows everything makes great comic relief. The scene in the library is priceless.

I love thieves cant! I could guess most of the meanings from the context, but there were a couple of phrases that I needed to consult Grose's Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue. I found an online version here: http://www.fromoldbooks.org/Grose-VulgarTongue/
Check out the section with Canting Songs and Slang Rhymes.

Like some of the other posters, I did like The Magician's Ward better. It was interesting to read about Kim adapting to the more constrained role of a girl. It made the nineteenth century seem more relatable to me, because as a modern woman I think I would react the same way she does. "Maybe it's just how you toffs are, deciding what other people should do. But I wasn't born and bred to it. I don't like it. And I ain't never going to get used to it."

Regina Scott said...


Glad you had time to read the books. Thieve's cant is just too much fun. I love when I can legitimately get a character to use it.