This delightful novel, the first of a series, predates the Harry Potter novels by over 10 years. Wrede and Stevermer wrote and published Sorcery and Cecilia in 1986. I would have been in college at that time, which might explain why I completely missed out on this series, geared toward young readers (early teens-ish). Still, as with HP, a well written story attracts readers of all ages, so if you’re looking for a little magic fix, or enjoy an Austen-esque comedy of manners, Sorcery and Cecilia is a fun, witty diversion with a good dose of girl power thrown in.
The novel is written in the form of letters between two cousins, Cecilia (Cecy) Rushton and Kate Talgarth, during the London “season” of 1817. Cecy and Kate are best friends who have been temporarily separated while Kate and her gorgeous younger sister Georgiana come “out” in London Society. Cecy is left back at the country estate with her father and severe Aunt Elizabeth, while equally severe Aunt Charlotte chaperones Kate and Georgy. Cecy and Kate are nice enough looking girls, but not the types to attract lots of manly attention the way Georgy and the new girl Dorothea Griscombe do. Shy and sweet Dorothea seems to have an almost magical allure to the opposite sex, and as we find out very early, magic is a well known feature of Regency London. The Rushton’s neighbor Sir Hilary Bedrick is a known magician and has just been inducted into the college of wizards in a London ceremony which Kate happens to attend. And this is where the magical mischief begins. Kate accidentally gets swept into the path of evil sorceress Miranda, which leads to Kate’s entanglement with the “odious” Marquis of Schofield (Thomas). Cecy, from afar, tries to help Kate with this dangerous situation. After pilfering a book or two from Sir Hilary’s library, Cecy learns some magic tricks and crosses paths (and wits) with Thomas’ friend James “you-aren’t-very-good-at-skulking” Tarleton. Cecy also surreptitiously begins magic lessons with a Mr. Wrexton; Aunt Elizabeth, if she knew, would have vigorously disapproved as she is firmly against magical practices for reasons unknown. And yes, a strange, magical, and weirdly blue chocolate pot is essential to the plot and central to the desires of our main characters.
Cecy and Kate are marvelous protagonists. They are smart, brave, funny, and steadfast friends. While they occasionally do allow their thoughts to drift off into pretty dresses and finery, they really seem much more interested in sleuthing and helping each other, and even sometimes the men who barge into their lives. Kate, with her perspective on the interaction of eligible members of both sexes in London, offers some wise assessments of men, in general,
Men can be such provoking creatures. One would think the entire world and everything in it was made only for their enjoyment and approval.
and in particular,
She [Dorothea] was delighted by the sound of his [Robert’s] name, and we discussed his virtues at great length, I thought, considering how few of them he possessed.
Cecy’s relationship with James and Kate’s with Thomas are very satisfying. The girls refuse to be led or ordered (much to the chagrin of these two men who served under Lord Wellington in the Napoleonic campaigns), and they speak forcefully and forthrightly (sometimes hilariously) with them. And, in a rather Jane Austen turn of events, we learn that these arrogant men aren’t quite so bad as we initially think.
Wrede and Stevermer had not set out with a plan to write this novel together. In the afterward, we learn that Stevermer had mentioned a “letter game” that she used to play, where she and a friend would write letters to each other as characters, allowing a plot to develop organically. Wrede convinced her to play the letter game with her just for fun, and when they finished, they felt they had a book on their hands. I think the letter game (a type of role playing game, for the gamers out there) sounds like a lot of fun, and I would hope that kids who read this book would be encouraged to give it a try. Put Sorcery and Cecilia into the hands of the smart girls in your life and keep a copy for yourself!