Stephanie Burgis' Kat, Incorrigible, or A Most Improper Magick, as it is known in the UK where it was first published, is best described as Jane Austen meets Diana Wynne Jones and is an absolute treat. I have not been this enchanted and entertained by a historical time period and a heroine since Patricia C Wrede's Thirteenth Child, which is could be described as Laura Ingalls Wilder meets Diana Wynne Jones. And, while I am most perturbed that Burgis' books are being published in England a year before making it to our shores, I do think we have the better wrap-around cover art provided by Annette Marnat. The second book in this proposed trilogy, Kat Incorrigible: Renegade Magic, not due until April 2012 in the US, is known as Book Two: A Tangle of Magicks and is coming out this summer in the UK. The fabulous cover art can be seen at the end of this review. Book three, which only has working titles at this point, will be out summer of 2012 in the UK and April of 2013 in the US. I tell you all of this before even talking about the book because, if you enjoyed it as much as I did, once you start reading you will want to know exactly how long you have to wait to spend more time with Kat and the rest of the Stephenson family.
When we first meet our twelve year old narrator, she has chopped off her hair, dressed as a boy and is sneaking off in the dead of night in the hopes of saving her family from societal and financial ruin. How is it that a twelve year old girl thinks she can save her sisters, Angeline, seventeen and Elissa, nineteen, and their older brother Charles, who has gambled his family into deep debt? Why, by creating a scandal to overshadow that which Charles has brought upon the family, of course! Her disappearance will cause a huge kerfuffle that will distract from Charles' shame at having been "sent down from Oxford for bad behavior." And, after a time Kat supposes she can get a job on 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 it home to you two, so at least you could both have real dowries and then . . . " This sentence encapsulates the powerful societal forces that her sisters are up against, forces that, from a certain age on, consume every waking moment for a young woman of this place and time. I think that Jane Austen and the plight of her heroines are familiar enough in today's culture that most young readers might already have seen a movie or two and have a vague sense of the strictures placed in women of a certain class in the 1800s in England. If not, Burgis does a fine job emphasizing and illustrating the importance of propriety, social standing and monetary worth during the Regency Era in a way that young readers will grasp. This sentence also is representative of the forward thinking personality of our heroine, the impulsive, headstrong, sometimes over confident Kat. Burgis does a fine job of showing how Kat's unladylike behavior is is out of the norm by having her Stepmama and sisters constantly correcting, chiding and punishing her for her words and actions.
Kat and her sisters all know that their mother Olivia, who died shortly after Kat's birth, was a witch and they know exactly where her enchanted possessions and spell filled diaries are locked away. They are locked away because their father, a clergyman, has remarried some five years hence and tried to put the impropriety of the children's mother and her practice in the past, mostly at the wishes of their new Stepmama, who is extremely concerned with appearances and constantly bemoaning their lack of finances and inability to keep up with the ton. To this end, she is scheming to secure a marriage proposal for Elissa from Sir Neville Collingwood, reminding the girls how important it is to "do what you truly think is best for your family," and preying on Elissa's love of gothic novels and willingness to nobly sacrifice true love for the good of her family. When Kat finds out that Sir Neville is old enough to be Elissa's father and might have murdered his first wife, she sets her plan in action but is stopped by her sisters before she can get past the garden gate. Angeline has turned to magic for help and is secretly reading her mother's magic books, which she has secreted from the locked cupboard, and cast a spell on her one true love who also happens to be wealthy enough (but not nearly as wealthy as Sir Neville) to rescue the family. Angeline's plan works only slightly better than Kat's and the girls find themselves in more trouble than they could have ever imagined.
Setting the scene for this story is hard enough. Burgis does a fine job creating a world filled with tea cups, drawing rooms, gossip, tutors, bandboxes, valises, reticules, carriages and highwaymen. Like the works of Jane Austen, Kat, Incorrigible is rich with dialog, but not quite as slim on action, especially with Kat as the main character. We only get a glimpse of the magical world that Burgis has created here, and we learn how it works along with Kat. When Kat cannot get her hands on the magic books for a sufficient amount of time, she decides to break into the cabinet and find some magic of her own while at the same time accidentally breaking almost every item in it. The one surviving item is a "gold-encased, folded-up travel mirror" which claims Kat, returning to her palm in seconds no matter who takes it from her. When opened, this mirror proves to be a portal to a golden hall where Kat meets Mr Aloysius Gregson, her mother's former tutor, and Lady Lydia Fotherington, a woman who seems to have nothing but disdain for Olivia as well as her daughter. This hall proves to be the meeting place for members of the Order, a league of Guardians who practice a more noble type of magic which though it "has never been made public, is far more rare and remarkable," than the kind practiced by common witches. It is a "respectable and natural form" of magic, as Mr Gregson tells Kat. The power of a Guardian is inherited and Oliva was, by birth, "one of the most powerful magic-workers in the nation." One of the jobs of the Guardians is to police witches in their use of magic and "pacify" them when they flaunt "their spells until even the most obtuse" neighbors notice, which is exactly what Kat's mother did. Kat learns that she is the heir to her mother's power and position but turns down Mr Gregson's offer to tutor her when both he and Lady Fotherington insist that Kat hand over her mother's magic books to them for safe keeping. Thinking that they are the enemy, especially when Lady Fotherington tries to cast a spell on Kat, she tackles her, punches her in the nose and uses her newfound power to flee the hall. However, as the family makes its way to Grantham Abbey, the home of Stepmama's second cousin, for a house party that Sir Neville will be attending, Kat realizes who her real enemy is, almost too late.
I wish there had been more use of magic in this book and less arguing about the use of magic between Kat, Mr Gregson, Lady Fotherington and her sisters. But, I do realize that this is more a result of remaining true to the time period of the story as well as the plot itself. And, in terms of the plot, the plight of the Stephenson family and the romantic and dramatic events of the house party are very entertaining in and of themselves. What really hurtles Kat, Incorrigible above the bar is Kat herself. While her headstrong willfulness makes for much of her trouble, she is not unaware that her sisters (and their good opinion, which truly does me something to Kat) think her foolish. The beauty of the first person narrative is that we get to hear Kat argue with and sometimes berate herself, but plow ahead anyway, figuring things out as she goes. By the end of the book Kat, who has a fascination with highwaymen, rights enough wrongs that she gets to live out a dream and experience a freedom that no girl her age in her time and place could rightfully have. Kat also manages to speak out for herself after a lecture from her sisters, despite the fact that she saved both of them. In the end, when Kat accepts her place in the Order and Mr Gregson as her tutor, she thinks to herself, "I was going to fight dangerous rogue witches like Sir Neville and keep them from hurting anybody else. But I wasn't going to stand by and let any of the Lady Fotheringtons in the Order persecute innocent witches, either. The whole Order was going to have to make some massive changes while I was a member - because, just like Mama before me, I wasn't going to let myself be bound by either ignorance or prejudice." Or class. If anyone can speak truth to power, it is Kat Stephenson, magical powers or not!
I look forward to following Kat's career as a Guardian and her mastering of magic. I can't wait to see what kind of spells, spies, rakes and rogues the Stephensons encounter in the next book, which finds the family traveling to the fashionable city of Bath! Although she lives in Wales, Ms Burgis has made a lovely offer to her readers and is willing to chat, via Skype, with young readers in book groups, classrooms and libraries. Also of interesting note, Ms Burgis has a Bachelor of Music degree in French Horn Performance and Music History and a Master's degree in music history, specializing in late 18th century opera! If you liked Kat, Incorrigible and want something similar to read while you wait for book 2, scroll down!
If you or your young reader enjoyed this book, be sure to read Patricia C Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's epistolary trilogy in which the authors play the "letter game." The letter game involves two or more participants exchanging letters and building plot without discussing their intended structure or the course of the story outside of this correspondence. The first letter writer establishes her/his character as well as that of the recipient and sets the scene, explaining why they must communicate in this fashion. It begins with Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot: Being the Correspondence of Two Young Ladies of Quality Regarding Various Magical Scandals in London and the Country, an excerpt from which can be read here. The book consists of letters between cousins Kate and Cecelia, best friends who often find themselves separated by circumstances when Kate is taken to London for the season and Cecelia, due to her lower station, and end up on opposite ends of a magical plot. The second book, The Grand Tour or the Purloined Coronation Regal: Being a Revelation of Matters of High Condfidentiality and Greatest Importance, Including Extracts from the Intimate Diary of a Noblewoman and the Sworn Testimony of a Lady of Quality. Book three is The Mislaid Magician or Ten Years After: Being the Private Correspondence Between Two Prominent Families Regarding a Scandal Touching the Highest Levels of Government and Security of the Realm.