Sunday, 30 September 2012

REVIEWS: Magical stories from Stephanie Burgis and Katherine Roberts

Books and magic

Reading as a child I never really considered myself on the lookout for magic. I would have said I loved books about 'real life':
animal real life, where children worked in vets, rescued stray dogs and won gymkhanas AGAINST THE ODDS 
sporty real life, where characters set up football teams and then won the tournament in a thrilling comeback AGAINST THE ODDS 
exciting real life, where five children and a dog solved mysteries which probably involved smuggling, 
emotional real life, where Judy Blume and Jacqueline Wilson did a pretty good job as my joint agony aunts
and historical real life, where all of the above happened, but in the past.

But I realised last year, when I went to see Matilda the Musical, that I had completely forgotten that MATILDA, which I listened to on tape over and over again when I was young, had magic in it. And then I remembered a good hour spent when I was about 7 trying to move a pencil with my mind. So perhaps I was looking for magic really - I wanted to be in other worlds, be different people and do things I wouldn't otherwise be able to do (I have still never rescued a stray dog, won a football match AGAINST THE ODDS or moved a pencil with my mind). 

If I could do another magical thing and go back in time, then I would read more fantasy and books with magic in them. But if you think that stories are all pretty magical anyway, then hopefully I didn't miss out too much (and I have plenty of time to catch up). Here are reviews of two books that, like MATILDA, feature feisty, remarkable girls at odds with an adult world that doesn't appreciate them. Warning: may contain magic. 

A RECKLESS MAGICK: The (Un)Ladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson 
Stephanie Burgis

The terrifically un-ladylike Kat Stephenson returns in her third adventure negotiating manners and magic in Regency England. As Kat's family travel to the Carlyle's grand country house to prepare for her sister Angeline's wedding, Kat realises that forces scarier even that Angeline's future mother-in-law are at work. The magical Order is under threat, someone is out to stop the wedding and a mysterious marquise has Kat questioning everything she knows about her past. On top of that Kat decides that it is about time her restless brother Charles got himself a girlfriend. 

I feel like Stephanie Burgis thought to herself, now what things are great? Magic and Jane Austen-land are both pretty great. I'll put them together!! And the result is an utterly delightful series, where charming Regency England fizzes with magic and is brought to life by its feisty heroine. For me the highlight of the book is Kat. She adds a punch (literally in the previous book) to a world of manners and rules and shocks the book's grand social stalwards by forgetting to be polite and not caring a great deal about the way she looks. To them of course thirteen-year-old girls are just preparing for the time when they go out and secure a husband. Kat wants more from life - as was evident from her first appearance in book 1, where she'd cut her hair short and was running away to London. By introducing Kat's magical gift (which she has inherited from her mother and allows her to be admitted to the Order of Guardians, who protect the country from threat), Burgis has found a way for Kat to experience excitement beyond bonnets and betrothals. She writes us back into Austen's England, while at the same time giving girls like Kat room to breathe.

This book has the feel of a country house murder mystery - although thankfully Kat doesn't develop a Belgian accent and a little moustache. There are tales of secret passageways used by smugglers, characters - like the Marquise de Valmont - who are hiding something, and the knowledge that one of the people in the house is dangerous. There is also an Austen-style romance element, where the tangles of what people really feel for each other need to be worked out. The magical storyline - Guardian powers must be kept hidden from society, as must the existence of witchcraft, which is far more scandalous - adds another layer of secrets. I really enjoyed the interplay between magic and society - witches are looked down on in the same way as girls who embark on a scandalous affair or simply violate the social 'rules' in some way. And the taint of being a witch affects the whole family, as is shown by the attitude towards Kat's family because of her mother, who was exposed as a witch and shunned both by society and the Order. 

I loved the chance to revisit Kat's world and in particular to get to know her brother Charles. There have been plenty of dashing Regency men in books, but less reformed drunk/gambler and effortlessly charming ones. And he is a lovely big brother - he accepts without question what Kat is capable of, seems only bemused by the magical powers of his sisters and he steps up to protect her (even if she doesn't really need him).


LANCE OF TRUTH: Pendragon Legacy Book 2 
Katherine Roberts

Rhianna Pendragon's quest to save Camelot and bring her father back to life continues. She has won Excalibur, the first of the four Lights that will revive King Arthur, and now must seek the second - the Lance of Truth. But her evil cousin Mordred has a plan. He is holding Rhianna's mother Guinevere captive in order to lure Lancelot, the bearer of the lance. Can Rhianna get there first? And will saving the mother she has never known distract her from her true quest?

After meeting Rhianna Pendragon earlier this year in her first adventure, SWORD OF LIGHT, I was thrilled to discover I wouldn't have to wait too long before meeting her again. In a similar way to Kat Stephenson, Rhianna turns her world upside down by refusing to conform to the notion of what girls 'should' be like. Arthur's knights find it incredibly discomforting that Rhianna wants to joust, wear armour and wield Excalibur rather than sit in castle windows in a distressed damsel outfit and wave a hanky while they go off to fight. 

The magic in this book is part of the fabric of Rhianna's world. I recently read Katherine Roberts' Branford Boase-winning SONG QUEST and found it similar in the way you arrive into a perfectly formed magical land. There is no explanation of how this world works, you are simply swept into it and the details make it feel real enough to touch. In the Rhianna Pendragon series of course there are the familiar elements of the Arthur story, but in creating the younger generation - Rhianna, her childhood best friend fairy Prince Elphin, fiercely loyal squire Cai and Rhianna's shy lady in waiting Arianrhod - Roberts has made the story feel new. And you get to explore and question those familiar parts of the story, such as, in this book, how Guinevere really feels about Lancelot and Arthur. 

Underpinning Rhianna's quest to find the four Lights is her journey towards her father, who appears for tantalising moments as a ghost willing his daughter on. Arthur and Guinevere sent Rhianna away as a baby to the isle of Avalon, home of the fairies, where she was brought up by Prince Elphin's father, the Fairy King. In this book Rhianna has to work out her relationship with her mother, who seems, like everyone else, to want her to become a traditional princess. Connected, but without a shared history, it takes the two of them a great deal of feeling their way before Rhianna can show her mother who she really is, and Guinevere can finally open up to her daughter about Arthur. 

At its heart this is a story about friendship, acceptance and doing the right thing. In a place where there's magic in the air.