Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Book Review - Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's The Grand Tour

The Grand Tour by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: September 1st, 2004
Format: Hardcover, 480 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Cecelia and Kate are back in action, together not separate for this adventure, and they're bringing their new spouses along for the honeymoon. Though Kate doesn't think there's any chance she's going to get used to being called Lady Schofield, much as Cecelia is having a hard time remembering she is Mrs. Tarleton, nevertheless they are in wedded bliss. Heading to the continent with Kate's new mother-in-law, Lady Sylvia, in tow for the first leg to Paris, they have barely arrived in France when magical misdeeds are afoot. They are inexorably drawn into a possibly Bonapartist plot to use items of magical significance to legitimize Napoleon as ruler of Europe, or at least they assume it's the recently deposed despot. The magic adds supernatural significance to the appointed leader making their rule as close to divinity as is possible. Asked by Wellington himself to stop this atrocity from happening, the happy couples are able to move about the continent on their grand tour with the whim of newlyweds, when really their whims are strategic plans to catch a magical mastermind. Hopefully they won't be in too much danger and that there will be lots of operas for Kate.

As you can imagine, reading all these books centered during the Regency in England basically means that I've been living in the early 1800s now for a couple of months. What you might not be aware of unless you've noticed the link on my sidebar is that I'm participating in a year long re-read of all Lauren Willig's Pink Carnation, aka Napoleonic War Regency England, books. This month I'm moderating the discussion of the re-read of The Orchid Affair on my friend Ashely's blog, The Bubble Bath Reader. And no, I'm not mentioning this just to get you to go over to her blog, though that would be rather nice, I'm mentioning this because my re-reading of both The Orchid Affair and The Grand Tour was a nice confluence of events that made me appreciate the later more then I did initially.

The two books serve as complimentary volumes dealing with the loss of the monarchy in France because of the revolution. While The Orchid Affair was about restoring a prince of the blood during the reign of Napoleon prior to his self-proclaimed Empire, The Grand Tour dealt more with the aftereffects of the war and the desire to not repeat recent history. Because both books, while not exactly being for governance by a sovereign entity, show quite well the fact that there is a benefit to stability. In France the stability is no longer having a fear of the guillotine, in Italy, it is the unification of all of Italy into one nation. By having a better grounding in history due to The Orchid Affair, what was on my first read of The Grand Tour a rather dull trek through Europe following artifacts, became something more real, something that actually had importance and impact. A little perspective can easily change your opinion if you are willing to let it.

But what I really think is the strength of The Grand Tour is that it brings the actual tradition, the coming of age right of the grand tour of Europe into a more visceral experience. Mainly this has to deal with travel during the early 1800s. In so many books of the time, or written about the time, the grand tour was just mentioned as a right of passage, a way to expand your knowledge and tastes by traveling and seeing great works of art. You were expected to gain some culture and then return home with a broadened mind and some stories. So in fiction you usually have the character who mentions they are setting off on this trip or have just returned, but do they talk about the actual day to day travel? No, they talk about art and artifacts. But just wrap your head around the fact that this is before trains, before cars, and there are a lot of mountains in Europe.

The "Tour" was more of a trek. To get a sense of this one would be better off reading travel narratives of the day, not fiction, or just read The Grand Tour. What Stevermer and Wrede have done so expertly is capture the hardships and danger that was involved in traveling through Europe in the 1800s, masked gunmen aside. We think we have it bad when our plane is delayed or we are rerouted? Imagine having to take days in a carriage banging about just to get from one city to another? Not only that. How about crossing the Alps? Here's your donkey, don't look down. Seriously, we, as travelers, have NOTHING to gripe about. Nothing! Poor Kate seems to spend the entirety of the trip cold, wet, and rattled; and that's not even because of evil magicians set on creating an overlord, this is just because of drafty carriages, wet weather, wind, and badly maintained roads. It takes the glamor right out of the grand tour, but in it's place it leaves a truth that is universal but is usually glossed over by other writers.

As for Stevermer and Wrede's continuation of the letter game? It fell flat. The Grand Tour was written over fifteen years after Sorcery and Cecelia and during the interim both the authors have gained a maturity in their writing. While this does lead to a solid writing style, it loses the spontaneity and fun of the previous book. It's more refined, it's more polished, almost to the point where you can no longer hear the distinction between the author's voices. Plus, I know the fact that the characters are on the tour together means that the previous convention of writing letters back and forth isn't tenable, so we are into diary territory, but the whole gimmick of the letter game is that the characters aren't together. So Stevermer and Wrede thought it would be fun to break basically the only rule of the letter game. Maybe they should have realized the rule is there for a reason. Having the narrative shift back and forth between Kate and Cecelia while they are often in the same room led to a bad case of head-hopping and having us readers get whiplash. So the book might have a lot going for it, and it's a solid read, but it lacks that magical spark that makes Sorcery and Cecelia so memorable.


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