Wednesday, April 21, 2010

perhaps lucy needed a wizard?

after attending the new england historical association conference on saturday, i got a chance on sunday afternoon to finish up the second volume of patricia wrede and caroline stevermer's young adult fantasy series which started with the enchanted chocolate pot, the grand tour.

(the cover art for this series, by the way, is really delightful. i love the details on the girls' clothes and the spark of color on each one with an otherwise black-and-white or sepia-tone background is really effective. and good use of font in the title, too.)

only minor spoilers ahead; if you haven't read the first volume and plan to, you may wish to skip this until you have if you're an absolute plot purist. otherwise, read on.

at the end of the first volume, both girls, kate and cecy, were quite happily engaged to be married to their respective beaux james and thomas (i honestly i have a very hard time keeping track of which goes with which -- the two young men have very similar characters and wrede and stevermer have spent much less time, to my mind, making them distinct than the girls. which is fine, but somewhat troublesome when describing the book to someone else!) as a wedding trip, the two couples, after a double ceremony, take off for the continent to take part in "the grand tour," which was a reasonably common feature of upper-class english life between...oh, roughly, the eighteenth and early twentieth centuries, in terms of giving people a glimpse of the continent. young men could be sent off after university if there was nothing better for them to do; young women could accompany their brothers or husbands or, if necessary, be chaperoned. there are actual histories written about the grand tour as a cultural experience: what people saw, where they went, what they wrote as a result, and so forth. e.m. forster's lucy honeychurch in a room with a view is on a later version of the tour when it is so abruptly derailed by her chaperone in florence.

in any case, as soon as the girls and their husbands set foot in europe, they're caught up in what may (or may not) be another mystery with magical trimmings: an unknown lady descends upon them, leaves them with a mysterious flask, and vanishes. highwaymen set upon them; they have to learn revolutionary-era codes to communicate; and someone may (or may not) be trying to re-crown napoleon as emperor of europe. and in the middle of all this, kate and cecy have to navigate their wedding nights, purchase gloves for kate's ever-diminishing stock, hire maids, and find time to go shopping.

i realise that this is kind of the cheap 'n cheesy description of the book and i did it for a reason which is that this book is fluff. it is pure, enjoyable, tasty popcorn. i didn't enjoy it quite as much as i did the first one -- there wasn't the same sense of real danger; there wasn't an enemy as good as the first one; and i'm sure there were giant potholes in the story i just kind of floated over because i read it so quickly. it doesn't really matter; it's still charming, kate and cecy are readable, sympathetic, enjoyable characters despite the difficulty i have in keeping their husbands apart!

wrede and stevermer kind of dodge around the more explicit relationships between each girl and her husband while managing to make it quite clear that everything is proceeding to the satisfaction of each individual which is really very sweet.

the grand tour isn't epistolary; i know in the original review i read, this was brought up as something of a weakness and i have to admit, i missed the letter format. i understand that wrede and stevermer go back to using that in the third volume, and i'm looking forward to that when i can find it.

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