Review posted October 1, 2011.
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, New York, 2011. 298 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2011: #4 Children's Fiction
I love the way this book begins:
I was twelve years of age when I chopped off my hair, dressed as a boy, and set off to save my family from impending ruin.
I almost made it to the end of the garden.
"Katherine Ann Stephenson!" My oldest sister Elissa's outraged voice pinned me like a dagger as she threw open her bedroom window. "What on earth do you think you're doing?"
Kat had heard their Stepmama telling their Papa that she had managed to get Elissa engaged to be married to a rich old man, thus saving the whole family from financial ruin.
Kat explains to her sisters how she was going to save Elissa and the family:
"I was going to London," I said. "I knew if I ran away, there would be such a scandal that Stepmama wouldn't be able to sell Elissa off. And once I was there . . ." I half closed my eyes, to see my dream past my sister's skeptical face. "There are thousands of jobs a boy can get in London. I could sign on to a merchant ship and make my fortune in the Indies, or I could be a typesetter at a newspaper and see every part of London. All I'd have to do is get work, real work, earning money, and then I could send part of it home to you two, so at least you could both have real dowries and then --"
Kat's sisters, of course, won't allow her to go through with this plan, and quickly point out its shortcomings.
Kat truly is incorrigible, though. When she finds out her sister Angeline has been working with their Mama's magic books, Kat takes a look herself -- and gets more than she bargained for.
They all know that Mama's magic was frowned upon by society. What they didn't know was that their Mama was part of a secret Order that had power to regulate magic throughout the realm. Only one child from each generation inherits the power of the Order, and it looks like Kat is the one in this generation. But does she want training from people who disapprove of the kind of magic Angeline is doing? And Angeline's magic looks to be causing its own trouble.
Meanwhile, Stepmama is still working to prepare Elissa to marry Sir Neville. Never mind the rumors that he killed his first wife. And why is he so interested in Kat's powers? Add in romantic troubles for both sisters, a mysterious highwayman, and a visit to the elegant Grantham Abbey, and you end up with a rollicking tale of magic and manners both.
This book is a lot of fun. There are some coincidences (like Elissa falling in love with Sir Neville's brother) and solutions that maybe come a little too easy -- but it's all in good fun and makes truly entertaining reading. Kat reminds me of Flavia DeLuce in her sheer incorrigibility that won't be cowed by older sisters, and the book itself reminded me of Sorcery and Cecilia by combining Regency England with magic, though this one is for younger readers, since it's Kat's sisters who have the romance, not Kat herself.
But I'm totally on board with this book. Take a Jane Austen-like situation. Add magic. Add a feisty younger sister who doesn't know her own power. Mix well. The result is delightful reading and bound to make you smile.