Epistolary fantasy that will make you smile: Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer’s Sorcery and Cecelia

Sorcery and Cecelia is delightful. It’s a Regency Romance set in a Regency England with magic. It’s in the form of letters sent between the Kate and Cecelia, who are cousins and best friends. Kate is in London for a season and Cecelia at home in the country. They both become caught up in the complicated and magical affair of the Enchanted Chocolate Pot, and with young, fascinating, and infuriating gentlemen. There are aunts and Almacks, birdwitted beauties and a mysterious marquis, just as you’d expect, and there’s magic running through everything—a spell to make all the young men fall in love with one particular young lady, the investiture of a neighbour into the Royal College of Wizards, and the interesting matter of charm bags.

The afterword reveals that the book was written as a series of letters between the two authors and tidied up later. You can’t always tell what fun something was to write by what fun it is to read, but I think you can in this particular case. This isn’t a book to take seriously, there’s never a moment’s actual worry for the safety of the protagonists or their loved ones, bit is really is charming, and a lot of fun.

Reading this is like finding oneself in a world where the protagonist of a Georgette Heyer novel has tripped and fallen into something much more interesting, but where having good sense, quick wits, the right gown and impeccable manners will still be enough to see her through. This was, I think, the first of the fantasy Regencies, it came along long before Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. It was also one of the first things to be described as a “fantasy of manners” and one of the usefully defining works of that genre. I won’t say it’s responsible for the whole “Regency with Monsters” subgenre, but certainly anyone who enjoys those is likely to enjoy this—and it’s a pity that it’s unlikely that they’ll encounter this. It’s most recently been published as YA. Somebody should bring it out in a black cover and call it Sorcery and Cecelia or Jane Austen With Wizards.

Wrede and Stevermer were both accomplished fantasy writers before writing this, and their confidence with worldbuilding shows. The magic is integrated perfectly into the society with few rough edges. If there were a Royal College of Wizards, they’d do investitures just like that, and if magic worked, there would be books in libraries just like the ones they describe. The genre conventions of the Regency—that anyone of the opposite gender who irritates you is destined to be fallen in love with—are also handled well, if conventionally. The romances are very pat, which is just how you want them to be.

There are two excellent sequels—The Grand Tour and The Mislaid Magician. They’re both very good, the third a little better than the second which suffers from not being epistolary. Neither of them are quite as effervescent as the original, but I am very glad to have them

Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.


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