(Note: if you haven’t taken a look at my review policy, you can check it out here and here. In the spirit of full disclosure, Stephanie and I have chatted on Twitter a couple times, but just so you know, she became one of my new favorite authors before I started following her.)
Kat, Incorrigible (The Unladylike Adventures of Kat Stephenson #1),
by Stephanie Burgis
US edition: Atheneum/Simon & Schuster (April 2011)
Katherine Ann Stephenson has just discovered that she’s inherited her mother’s magical talents, and despite Stepmama’s stern objections, she’s determined to learn how to use them. But with her eldest sister Elissa’s intended fiancé, the sinister Sir Neville, showing a dangerous interest in Kat’s magical potential; her other sister, Angeline, wreaking romantic havoc with her own witchcraft; and a highwayman lurking in the forest, even Kat’s reckless heroism will be tested to the upmost. If she can learn to control her new powers, will Kat be able to rescue her family and win her sisters their true love? (description from goodreads – check it out here)
You know when reading a book feels exactly like eating a cookie? When devouring a novel makes you instantly happy, because It’s perfectly baked and full of your favorite ingredients?
Well, KAT, INCORRIGIBLE tasted just like a ginger chocolate chip cookie for my mind – a.k.a. my all-time favorite kid.
As for the ingredients…
Well, does anybody remember the little sister in Jane Austen’s SENSE AND SENSIBILITY? Not Elinor Dashwood, the dutiful and calm eldest, or Marianne, the boy-crazy drama queen, but the youngest, Margaret?
In the book, she doesn’t get much of a part, but consider the young Margaret from in Emma Thompson’s 1995 film adaptation:
She swordfights with her future brother-in-law.
She knows the most practical use for a treehouse (ie. spying on one’s big sister).
Even though her sisters leave her out of conversations most of the time, and they kind of treat her like she can’t understand their boy drama, she loves them like whoa. She often demonstrates that love through a little teasing about their boy drama.
I love Margaret. I always thought she deserved her own book.
Apparently, so did Stephanie Burgis: Margaret Dashwood and Kat Stephenson are totally two peas in a pod. Kat is adventurous, funny, quick-witted, loyal, and determined.
And KAT, INCORRIGIBLE is like the middle grade Austen novel Jane never wrote – a clergyman dad, snooty nobility, a NORTHANGER ABBEY-like setting, an extremely proper stepmother, a dutiful and martyr-like eldest sister, and a passionate and fiery-tempered middle sister. With that alone, I would have picked up this book and enjoyed it thoroughly, but this had one major difference, which edged this book to the top of my TBR pile:
The late mother of Kat and her elder sisters Elissa and Angeline was a witch.
That’s right, ladies and gentleman: an Austen-like novel with MAGIC, as told by the spunky little sister. How can you NOT read this?
Writer Tip Takeaways* – Use of History
*Okay, I can’t resist. I have to share something Useful and Awesome that this book taught me in the Realm of Writing Skills.
This is Regency, but with a deft, playful, plot-driven touch. This is how it should be done, y’all.
Historical novels require a lot of research, and a writer’s first instinct might be to throw all of her research into the book. That’s not helpful though. Research should influence the specific details a writer can use, and then it should disappear into the story.
(I guess I should mentioned that I struggled with this in THE EVER AFTERS 2: OF WITCHES AND WIND. I used a lot of history in one particular scene, and my poor agent and editor had to read through all the mess and reel me back in.)
Think of it like setting up an antique desk in your living room. You don’t add a plaque explaining the history of this specific desk, and the 18th century dude who designed it, and what famous writers used it before you. I mean, you could, but a) people would look at you weird, and b) get bored. Instead, you put the desk and write on it all the time, enjoying how nice it looks and how well it fits into your home without thinking about it much. The historical details you use should be that necessary and that forgettable.
For example, Kat has a magical item she needs to keep close by her at all times (I won’t name it since telling you what it is would be a slight spoiler), so she stuffs it in her reticule. Now, it’s pretty obvious that we don’t have reticules anymore, so it needs an intro. Some (lesser) historical novels would then explain exactly what a reticule is – they would describe it in detail, then describe how they’re made, and maybe throw in a factoid about how reticules have been fashionable for a decade and a half after Countess Something-Or-Other made them posh.
Burgis just introduces it like an author writing a modern day novel would describe any other everyday item:
Since it wouldn’t allow me to leave it behind, I slipped [MAGICAL SPOILER ITEM] into the beaded reticule Stepmama had made me for Christmas. I hung the silly, dainty bag over my arm before I left the attic. Angeline and Elissa might raise their eyebrows at the sight of me actually carrying such a ladylike item, but that had to be better than any reaction they might have to the sight of [MAGICAL SPOILER ITEM] appearing suddenly on my lap in the carriage as we traveled, or at my place setting on the Grantham Abbey dinner table. (73-74)
That’s all that was needed. It’s simple, elegant, and efficient – the scene turns straight back to Character Building, which – let’s be honest – are what we readers are really interested in anyway. That’s why we’re reading a historical novel rather than just a boring history book. 😛
Also, if you love KAT, INCORRIGIBLE as much as I did, check out the second installment in the series, RENEGADE MAGIC. I loved it just as much, and it takes place in Bath, ie. one of my favorite places in England!
And if you’re looking for other Marvelous Middle Grade Monday posts, go check out Shannon Messenger’s blog. 🙂