Saturday, March 7, 2009

Mairelon the Magician (book) by Patricia C. Wrede

This book is set in an alternate Regency England. Seventeen-year-old Kim survives on the streets of London by pretending to be a boy and doing whatever work she can find that is the least objectionable and illegal. Her latest job seems simple enough - all she's supposed to do is sneak into the wagon of Mairelon the Magician, a man who makes his living by performing entertaining (and non-magical) magic tricks, and see if he has a silver bowl. Unfortunately for Kim, it seems that Mairelon is a real magician - had she known, she'd never have taken the job. Mairelon catches her in his wagon and ends up offering her a job. Kim accepts, mainly because she knows she won't be able to pass for a boy much longer and doesn't have any other prospects.

It turns out that Mairelon is searching for some missing magical artifacts, of which the bowl is one. He has the bowl in his possession, but there are a few other items in the set that he still needs to find. He has to keep his true identity as Richard Merrill, a member of the gentry, a secret, because it's believed that he's the one responsible for stealing the magical artifacts and people are looking for him. Mairelon gets a lead on one of the other artifacts, a platter, and goes to find it, along with Kim and Hunch (sort of Mairelon's muscle). What follows is something of a farce. A bunch of wannabe druids had the platter, but one of them lost it in a card game. A whole lot of other people besides Mairelon are also looking for the platter, but they instead find very accurate and very non-magical fakes. I think at least four fakes turn up before the real one is finally found.

This book was more confusing and less interesting than I remember it being - I first read it several years ago, when I was a teen. I think what captured my interest back then was the hints of future romance - they're very subtle, mostly just confined to the annoyance Kim feels whenever Mairelon talks about his pretty French wizard friend, but I tended to gravitate strongly to any signs of romance in a fantasy novel. I guess I've been a romance fan for years, even before I started reading books in the romance genre.

There are so many characters involved in the search for the platter that I'm still not sure if I understand everyone's motivations. Wrede has Mairelon sum everything up at the end of the book, but that only makes it slightly less confusing. Still, if you don't mind a little confusion, the somewhat farcical search can be pretty funny at times (especially whenever the "druids" show up).

Mairelon and Kim are another good reason to read this book. Mairelon may be a powerful wizard, but he's also wonderfully naive at times. I'm not entirely sure how old he is - sometimes he seems like a nicely mature thirty-something, and sometimes he seems like an overly exuberant twenty-something. Kim is the more cautious and practical of the two, which isn't too surprising, considering how she's lived most of her life. Despite her practical and cynical streak, Kim's still young enough to be entranced by a magic show - I love that, and I think Wrede did a wonderful job with her.

Just as a final note, before I wrap things up - some people may be annoyed by Kim's way of talking. She uses what Wrede calls "thieves' cant," which means her vocabulary is probably unfamiliar to most readers. Some of it's pretty obvious: "ain't" = "isn't." Some of it's less obvious. There were times when I only understood the gist of what Kim was saying. I seem to remember that the edition of this book I read when I was a teen included a glossary, but I might be mistaken. I know the edition I own doesn't have a glossary, which is too bad, since I would've appreciated one.

Overall, while I wouldn't say this is the best book ever, I'd recommend it if you want to understand everything the characters are saying in the next book - the next book is much better, in my opinion.

Read-alikes:
  • The Lark and the Wren (book) by Mercedes Lackey - Fourteen-year-old Rune wants nothing more than to join the Bardic Guild and play music, but, because she was born out of wedlock, everyone in her village looks down on her. Rune decides to take her musical future into her own hands - she ends up fiddling for a ghost, disguising herself as a boy, and more. Eventually, Wren, a man with secrets, becomes her teacher. Those who'd like another story with adventure, magic, and a historical-feeling setting (I don't think it takes place during a specific real-world time period) might like this book. Again, the story has an older man taking a younger woman under his wing. Like in Wrede's Mairelon books (the second, not the first), there is eventually some romance.
  • A College of Magics (book) by Caroline Stevermer - This alternate-world fantasy is set in early twentieth-century Paris. Faris Nallaneen, the teenage Duchess of Galazon, is sent to Greenlaw College to acquire social graces and hopefully become marriageable - while some students also learn magic there, it is forbidden to practice magic on campus. Eventually, Faris not only learns that she is to inherit not only the throne of Galazon, she also discovers that she has magical abilities and is the new Warden of the North. Her first task as a new Warden isn't easy - she must mend the rift her grandmother made in the fabric of this reality. Those who'd like another historical fantasy with magic and a female main character might like this book.
  • The Fire Rose (book) by Mercedes Lackey - After her father dies, Rose Hawkins, a young scholar, finds herself in dire financial straits. When she is offered a position as a governess for the children of Jason Cameron, a wealthy rail baron in San Francisco, she feels she has little choice but to accept. However, Cameron has no children and doesn't need a governess. He's actually an Elemental Master whose specialty is Fire. He needs Rose's help to undo a spell that transformed his appearance and forced him to become a recluse. With an old enemy looking for any exploitable weakness, Cameron must work quickly. Those who'd like another story with a historical setting (early 20th century San Francisco) and a young woman in the company of a somewhat older, magic-wielding man might enjoy this book.
  • The Beekeeper's Apprentice (book) by Laurie R. King - In 1915, 15-year-old American Mary Russell, an orphan chafing in her aunt's care, meets Sherlock Holmes and impresses him with her intelligence and observation skills. He agrees to mentor her and lets her take part in a few cases, until she finally becomes part of a much more dangerous case. Those who'd like another story with a historical setting and an older (in this case, quite a bit older) man who takes an intelligent young woman under his wing might enjoy this book. Like Mairelon and Kim, Holmes and Mary spend a lot of time investigating - also, the two of them put together some great disguises.

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