Early nineteenth-century child and teen novels written with an equal influence of Jane Austen and Diana Wynne Jones are nothing new. Indeed they’ve been around for quite some time. They’re your Sorcery and Cecelia by Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer and the like. High manners plus magic equals an unbeatable combination in the eyes of many a reviewer (the jury is still out as to whether kids could care less). Into the fray leaps Kat, Incorrigible, known as A Most Improper Magick over in England. It had every appearance of being one of those middle grade novels that I read and desperately hope to like only to be crushingly disappointed by the end. I’ve been burned once too often, you see. Yet to my infinite surprise (not to say relief) I found this book charming! The characters are relatable, the magic used only when it serves the plot, the twists unexpected, and the ending infinitely satisfying. Top notch!
And she would have got away with it too, if it hadn’t been for those pesky sisters! Katherine Ann Stephenson (Kat) was wholly prepared to disguise herself as a boy and escape to London in order to save her eldest sister from having to marry that wretched Sir Neville, thereby keeping the family from financial ruin. Unfortunately, Kat doesn’t get five feet before her two older sisters figure out what she’s up to and put a stop to it. The year is 1803 and Kat’s mother (now long since dead) was once a witch. Thinking on her feet, Kat decides that the next best way to save Elissa is to locate her mother’s magic books and find something useful in them. This plan doesn’t entirely work either, though, since (A) Angeline got to them first and has been experimenting and (B) it turns out that Kat has a very different, very powerful kind of magic of her own that has nothing to do with witchcraft. Now the whole family has been invited to a nearby estate, and Kat has only a little time to outwit various adults, save her sisters, make everything right, and defeat the only villain who has ever made her feel truly powerless.
Part of why the story works as well as it does is that Burgis doesn’t go about creating some kind of wholly alternate world. In Kat’s universe magic exists but it is definitely NOT approved of by those in good society. After learning that fact I kind of hoped that Burgis would take this to the obvious next step and make it clear that witchcraft was the realm of servants and the poor, which would add an interesting class element to the proceedings. She doesn’t go that way, which is fine, but does mention the limited lot of ladies, which is a usual gripe in books set in this time period. Kat, ironically, has far more freedom than her older sisters all thanks to not hitting puberty yet. So if she wants to disguise herself as a boy or a highwayman, she can do so with relatively little fuss and bother. It may serve to upset her older siblings, but then most of the things Kat does upsets them anyway.
The manner in which Burgis sustains the familial relationships in this book is part of the reason I liked it as much as I did. For a while there at the beginning you’re certain that Kat lives a Cinderella-like life with two wretched older sisters and a wicked stepmother to boot. Not so. Though they are prone to taking her to task, Kat’s sisters are infinitely admirable. Just because someone is prissy or domineering, that doesn’t mean they can’t still care for you. They love her, she loves them, and they can all agree that their stepmother is a bit of a harpy. Yet even SHE is able to show a human side when all the events have played themselves out by the story’s end! It’s interesting that we never meet Kat’s ne’er do well older brother Charles in this book. Confined to his room for bad behavior, the most you ever get out of him is a bellow at the beginning of the tale and then that’s that. But if any of you are ever looking for a fun writing assignment, by the way, consider rewriting this book entirely from Angeline or Elissa’s point of view. I bet it could be done!
Will kids dig it? Boy I wish I could guarantee that. There’s something charming about it at a first glance, after all. The cover is enticing, and the description full of words like “romantic havoc”, “witchcraft”, “fiancé”, and “heroism”. There is a certain subset of romantic tween gal who has outgrown the princess genre but still longs for something similar. For them, this book fills that hard-to-define little need they may not even know they have. I think it is appealing to a certain kind of child. Some fantasy fans may find it too grounded in history to really get into it, while historical fiction fans could dislike what little magic there is. Yet for some, it’s just the right balance for the time period. Funny and strange, it’s bound to find some fans in the 9-12 range. I’ve seen books similar to it before, but nothing reads quite like this clever little debut. Good stuff.
On shelves now.
Source: Galley sent from publisher for review.
First Sentence: “I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed in boys’ clothes, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.”
Notes on the Title Change: Fascinating. Not the fact that they changed the title, mind. That just comes with the territory. No, I’m intrigued about the word choice. Kat, Incorrigible? Somewhat impossible to read without thinking of Maryrose Wood’s new series The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place, don’t you think? As far as I could tell, at no point in the text is Kat called “incorrigible”. Not that the term doesn’t fit her to a tee, but still. Odd.
Notes on the Cover: They tapped a French artist by the name of Annette Marnat for this one, which was an interesting choice. I have to say, I agree with what they’ve come up with here. Not sure if my buddy in the Met Museum would agree with the period nature of the hair and clothing, but short of a pink bra strap the bar for historically accurate children’s book covers these days is pretty darn low. I like it. I like the colors, the fact that it implies romance (the tea in the shape of a heart), magic, and fun all in one fell swoop. I even like the faces of the older sisters, and could easily imagine both Angeline and Elissa. Here’s the full cover, front and back:
In any case, I ended up liking this more than the British alternative:
Though this version is sort of awesome. I’m not sure if it was ever used, but it certainly has pep:
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- Book Aunt
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- I Was a Teenage Book Geek
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- Hopelessly Devoted Bibliophile
- The Musings of a Book Addict
- Manga Maniac Cafe
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- My Love Affair with Books
- Find out where the book originally came from here.
Here’s the book trailer from S&S:
And one from the author: