Friday, April 3, 2015

Book Review - Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's Sorcery and Cecelia

Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer
Published by: HMH Books for Young Readers
Publication Date: April 15th, 1988
Format: Hardcover, 316 Pages
Rating: ★★★★
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)

Kate and her younger and far more eligible sister Georgiana are debuting in London this season under the watchful eye of their Aunt Charlotte. While back in Essex Kate's best friend and cousin Cecelia is stuck rusticating with her father, her brother Oliver, and her Aunt Elizabeth. Cecelia would give anything to be in London with Kate, while after a few days in London Kate would give anything to be back in the country. The only thing keeping each other sane is their voluminous correspondence with each other. Luckily both their lives soon become far more interesting, as do their letters. Their neighbor in Essex, Sir Hilary Bedrick, is invested into the College of Wizards in London and at the ceremony Kate stumbles on something and someone very magical and dangerous, a wizard named Miranda. Miranda soon appears in Essex where her stepdaughter Dorothea is making a splash as well as fast friends with Cecelia. There appears to be a plot afoot to marry Dorothea off to Thomas Schofield, the Mysterious Marquess of Essex, who also happens to be a wizard. Soon their are missing brothers, fake fiances, undiscovered magical abilities, gambling, dancing, horses, borrowed books, and one very interesting chocolate pot. Working in two different locations can the two cousins save the day and perhaps get a little happily ever after?

Epistolary novels were once all the rage. There's something voyeuristic to reading a book of correspondences that just makes you not want to put the book down. There's the immediacy of wanting to know what happens next that sometimes isn't their in more traditional books. Plus, because you are reading diaries, letters, innermost thoughts, you have this feeling that it's not just voyeuristic but wrong and the owner of these letters could arrive at any moment and take them away, giving a frisson of excitement to your reading. Jane Austen was raised on these books and it's no wonder then that she experimented with this format. Sense and Sensibility, when it was still Elinor and Marianne, was an epistolary novel. But Jane abandoned this approach because she didn't like having to keep her characters apart for the whole narrative, which is an aspect to this style that must be adhered to. The fact that Sorcery and Cecelia is able to convincingly keep to this style when Jane Austen herself wasn't I think deserves a tip of the hat for being that little bit magical and all the more Regency.

Wrede and Stevermer created this epistolary book by playing the letter game. The game is played when two (or more) participates exchange letters back and forth that are telling a story. The first writer sets up the characters and the basic story and why the characters corresponding need to be apart and then the next writer builds on it. The letters fly back and forth, with the authors trying to one-up each other all while never discussing plot or character outside of the letters. It's a fun game that can be used as a writing exercise, a way to do collaborative writing, or a way to just have fun. I think of it as that drawing exercise I remember doing in first grade where a sheet of paper would be divided into three sections and someone would draw the first section of an animal and then it was hidden, then the next child would draw the middle of the animal, while the final child finished off the animal having no idea what came before. Personally I was always annoyed because I wanted to do the drawing all by myself. When I was younger I hated working collaboratively, so the letter game sounds a bit of a nightmare to me; like doing those improve stories where you just go all out back and forth, sometimes through the alphabet. The key I think is to do this with someone you trust, and the end result of Sorcery and Cecelia is that you can tell Wrede and Stevermer trusted each other and had fun in the process.

One of the by products of having coauthors on a book that goes back and forth between two narrators is that you have two very distinct voices. If you were writing any book with more then one narrator, if the voices of these characters don't come across as two different people it does nothing but annoy and alienate your readers and makes me really pissed. You either go all out or go home. But one of the problems that arises is that perhaps you start to favor one voice, or in this case, one author over the other. You can't help but compare and contrast and even re-reading this book all these years later I couldn't help but want to smack Cecelia. Of the two authors I feel as if Wrede is trying to not only one-up Stevermer but to wrest complete control of the story while making everything a little too much a pantomime. I couldn't help but think of Heads You Lose once or twice and how the combative natures of the writers amusingly fueled the plot. But Wrede isn't trying to be combative, but she is too forceful in her sections and it makes me long for the Kate sections. Stevermer writing Kate has the right level of collaboration while also having a better written heroine. As for the writers kind of mirroring these characters when I met them... let's just say that also reinforced my opinions.

But going back to talking about the aspect of an epistolary novel adding an immediacy to the story I think that the letter game ups this. Because the two authors aren't collaborating outside the letters they are sending back and forth there is no plotting in advance. It's all cause and effect, with breathtaking fluidity. Wrede and Stevermer might each have an idea or where they want the story to go and how they want it to end, but they can easily throw a wrench in each others ideas knowingly or unknowingly. This makes you, as the reader, want to just keep reading in a headlong rush because you and the authors don't know what will happen next! The suspense is palpable. The suspense is real. It's like watching a game, you don't know how it's going to turn out so you can't look away. Usually it's only tightly plotted books that have the ah ha moments perfectly placed for revelations that make suspense last, but here it's just the letters of two girls living in a magical England, and that makes me smile. Anyone who thought Regency England was all staid conversation and glacial plots should be handed this book to knock their prejudices aside.

Though for me the most important aspect of this book is that it kick-started a whole new generation of writers. It's amazing how many authors works who I love that list Sorcery and Cecelia as one of, if not the most favorite book of theirs. I kind of wish that I had found this book when it came out back in the eighties. At that age reading such a fun, madcap romp, with a little magic and romance, I can see why Gail Carriger and Stephanie Burgis point to this book and go yes, this book is inspirational. Who knows what might have happened with my reading habits if I had stumbled on this book earlier? Perhaps I would have found Jane Austen prior to senior year in high school. Maybe my book nerdiness would have onset earlier. But overall, I am grateful for the publishers that saw two writers having fun and realized that that joy was infectious and should be put out into the world, because it's magical.


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