Searching for Dragons

Searching for Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, 1990.

This is the second book in The Enchanted Forest Chronicles, continuing the adventures of Princess Cimorene, although the story is told from the point of view of Mendanbar, King of the Enchanted Forest.  The Enchanted Forest is no ordinary kingdom, and Mendanbar is no ordinary king.  To be King of the Enchanted Forest means being a skilled enchanter.  Mendanbar can use the forest’s magic directly, making him more powerful than wizards.  Most of the creatures in the forest obey him, and unlike ordinary people, he can find his way around the forest almost automatically, even though things in the forest tend to move around.

At the beginning of the story, Mendanbar’s steward, Willin, pesters him about the subject of getting married.  Mendanbar hasn’t given the matter much thought since his father died three years earlier, but then, there’s been a lot to do.  Queen Alexandra has several daughters, any of which would be considered “suitable,” but Mendanbar doesn’t like any of them.  Mendanbar is annoyed because he’d just gotten the elf clans’ feud settled and was looking forward to a period of relative calm, so he decides that he’s going to give himself the day off, for a change.

He decides to take a stroll by the Green Glass Pool to relax, but on the way, he encounters a princess.  That’s not too unusual for the Enchanted Forest (home to many fairy-tale creatures and the events that make up fairy tales), but this princess strikes Mendanbar as a particularly scheming and ambitious one.  She tells him a great tale of woe in which her wicked stepmother cast her out that Mendanbar can tell is carefully rehearsed and might have even been the idea of the stepmother in question, with the idea of hooking an adventurous prince.  (Royal families do things like that, see the previous book in the series.)  However, Mendanbar is puzzled because the forest usually keeps out people who are obviously selfish.  Then, the princess mentions crossing an area of waste to get into the forest, and Mendanbar is alarmed because there shouldn’t be a wasteland there.  Forgetting about the princess, he hurries off to investigate.

Sure enough, Mendanbar discovers that a section of the forest is actually missing, destroyed to the point where there are just dead stumps.  Even the magic is gone.  Upon further investigation, Mendanbar finds dragons scales.  He isn’t sure why the dragons would want to attack the Enchanted Forest because they haven’t had any quarrels and mostly leave each other alone.  On the advice of a nearby talking squirrel, Mendanbar goes to see the witch Morwen.

After examining the dragon scales, Morwen demonstrates that, although they appear to be different colors and look like they’re from different dragons, they have actually been disguised.  They are actually from one dragon only.  Morwen also doubts that a dragon was really responsible for the damage to the forest.  After all, why would a dragon waste time disguising his scales when he could just pick them up?  Also, healthy dragons don’t shed that many scales.  Morwen is a friend of Kazul, who is the current King of the Dragons, and she advises Mendanbar to go see Kazul. 

Morwen also chides Mendanbar for not visiting Kazul when she became the king the year before.  Mendanbar feels a little guilty, saying that he’s just been very busy, which is true.  However, Morwen points out that what he could use is more effective help to organize things in the kingdom, not just making lists of things for him to do, like his steward does.  It’s part of the reason why people are saying that Mendanbar should get married.

Before Mendanbar can visit Kazul, he gets an unexpected visit from Zemenar, the Head Wizard.  Zemenar says that the wizards have been having problems with the dragons (again, see previous book) and that the dragons will not let them enter the Caves of Fire and Night.  He hopes that Mendanbar will allow them access from the Enchanted Forest.  Mendanbar doesn’t really trust the wizards, and he refuses the request on the grounds that he has something important to discuss with the King of the Dragons himself.  Zemenar tells Mendanbar about Kazul’s princess, Cimorene, blaming her for the the “misunderstanding” between the wizards and dragons.  Mendanbar at first imagines that Cimorene is much like the scheming princess he met that morning, but soon discovers that she’s anything but.  Taking the enchanted sword that only the kings of the Enchanted Forest can use with him, Mendanbar goes to visit the dragons.

At Kazul’s cave, Mendanbar meets Cimorene, who informs him that her official title is now Chief Cook and Librarian.  She tells him that part of the point of advertising this title is that it cuts down on the number of princes who come around.  Lots of princes want to rescue a princess, but few people want to rescue a Chief Cook and Librarian.  Mendanbar finds Cimorene a surprising change from the other princesses he’s met.  Mendanbar also makes a positive impression on Cimorene by using his sword to fix a broken sink, even if she describes the magic as being a bit “flashy.”

However, all is not well among the dragons.  Although Cimorene is reluctant to admit it at first, Kazul has mysteriously vanished.  She was planning to go out and search before Mendanbar showed up.  Kazul had been visiting her grandchildren when she decided to go by the Enchanted Forest to investigate someone growing dragonsbane.  Mendanbar shows Cimorene the dragon scales he found, and she indentifies them as belonging to Woraug, a dragon who was changed into a frog in the previous book.

It doesn’t take the two of them long to realize that the wizards are back to their old tricks and scheming.  However, what would they really have to gain by setting the Enchanted Forest and the dragons against each other?  And where is Kazul?

Like the other books in this series, this book is full of humor and a touch of mystery.  There are many parodies on fairy tale tropes, including an Wicked Uncle who’s not very wicked and does both a favor and an evil deed for his nephew by sending him to boarding school instead of abandoning him in the forest to have an adventure, as he’d hoped.  There is also romance between Cimorene and Mendanbar.  As you might have guessed, Cimorene is just the kind of practical princess Mendanbar needs to help him manage the magical chaos that is the Enchanted Forest and Mendanbar is the kind of king who is happy to find an intelligent princess who can do magic and rescue dragons.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Dealing with Dragons

Dealing with Dragons by Patricia C. Wrede, 1990.

This is the first book in the Enchanted Forest Chronicles.  The fun thing about this series is that it parodies many popular fairy tales and their tropes.  Some of the books in the series also take the form of fantasy mysteries with some puzzle or nefarious happenings that the characters have to figure out.

From when she was a young child, Princess Cimorene of Linderwall has been bored with the kind of life that is expected from ordinary princesses.  Unlike her six older sisters, Cimorene doesn’t have golden curls.  She has black hair, and she’s way too tall for a cute little princess.  She’s also very stubborn.  When Cimorene gets bored of the usual princess lessons involving dancing, embroidery, and etiquette, she pushes other people in the castle into giving her different types of lessons.  First, she convinces the armsmaster to give her fencing lessons.  Then, she gets the court magician to give her magic lessons.  She also arranges Latin lessons, cooking lessons, economics lessons, juggling lessons, and so forth.  Each time her parents find out about her unusual lessons, they put a stop to them because none of the subjects that Cimorene finds interesting are “proper” for a princess to study. 

When Cimorene’s parents try to arrange for her to marry a prince that she doesn’t like, she finally decides that enough is enough.  Cimorene meets a talking frog in the castle pond, and after talking over her problem with him and saying that she’d rather be eaten by a dragon than marry the prince, the frog recommends that she run away.  He even gives her directions on where to go after she leaves the castle.  Not having any other plan, Cimorene takes his advice . . . and ends up at a dragon’s lair.

It works out for the best, though.  Rather than being eaten, Cimorene asks the dragons in the lair if they are in need of a princess.  She isn’t quite sure what princesses who are taken captive by dragons do, but she can cook (as part of her earlier cooking lessons) and do other chores.  Although one of the dragons, Woraug, wants to just eat her, the dragon called Kazul takes her on as her princess.

Cimorene finds it interesting being a dragon’s princess.  She cooks for Kazul and also helps to organize her treasure hoard and library.  As is expected when word gets out that Cimorene is a dragon’s princess, knights come to try to rescue her.  They are shocked when Cimorene turns them away, and it takes awhile before Cimorene is able to convince them that she’s really happy with the dragons and doesn’t want to be rescued.

Cimorene even makes new friends.  Morwen, a witch friend of Kazul’s, comes to visit and teaches Cimorene more about magic.  Morwen is also very practical and suggests putting up a sign (something like “Road Washed Out”) to discourage knights from approaching Kazul’s lair.  It is while Cimorene is putting out the sign that she means the wizard Zemenar.  His presence in the area is suspicious because wizards and dragons do not get along.  Wizards do not use their own magic but use their staffs to soak up magic from magical places or magical beings – like dragons.  When wizards take magic from dragons, they actually take part of their essence, and give them a reaction that’s similar to allergies.  Zemenar is also head of the Society of Wizards, so it’s doubly suspicious if he’s been hanging around a dragon’s cave.  When Cimorene tells Kazul and her friends about seeing him, they become concerned, wondering what he’s after.

Cimorene also meets other princesses who are the captives of other dragons: Keredwel, Hallanna, and Alianora.  At first, they also have trouble believing that Cimorene actually volunteered to be a dragon’s princess and that she likes it.  Cimorene doesn’t like the arrogant attitudes of Keredwel and Hallanna, but Alianora is pleasant, and the two of them become friends.  Alianora tells Cimorene that, although she was taken captive by Woraug, her family basically set her up for it.  Like Cimorene, she was under a lot of pressure to do the things that everyone expects of fairy tale princesses, but she wasn’t much good at them, and things never turned out as one might expect.  The wicked fairy who came to Alianora’s christening when she was a baby didn’t curse her; she just enjoyed the party and had a wonderful time.  Alianora also didn’t prick her finger on the spinning wheel that her busy-body aunt gave her, and when she tried to spin straw into gold, she got linen thread instead.  When various fairy tale schemes failed to work for Alianora, her interfering aunt arranged for her to visit a village, knowing that Woraug was going to ravage it.  As Morwen noted, princesses who are taken captive by dragons and then rescued can expect to make good marriages.  Although being abducted by a dragon was a shock, Alianora says it’s not so bad; Woraug mostly ignores her since she doesn’t know how to cook, and it’s a relief for her to get away from her nagging aunt.  The only downside is that the other, more conventional princesses are really annoying.  Alianora and Cimorene bond over their unconventional lives as fairy tale princesses.  Cimorene gets the idea to send some of her knights and princes to go rescue Keredwel, thus taking care of two problems at once.  Alianora also helps Cimorene with her efforts to find a fire-proofing spell to protect the princesses from accidental burning from the dragons, and later becomes her ally when things get more serious.

Zemenar returns to Kazul’s cave and, while Cimorene tries to subtly pump him for information, he sneaks a look at a book about the history of dragons.  He seems to be interested in the section about how they settled in the Mountains of Morning, how they chose their king, and the Caves of Fire and Night, where they found the special stone that they use to choose their king.

Then, the king of the dragons is murdered, poisoned by dragonsbane.  The wizards have a confederate among the dragons themselves, and they want something that only the king of the dragons can give them.

By the time the murder is committed, Cimorene and Kazul have a pretty good idea of who the conspirator among the dragons is.  The wizards think that they’ve found a way to rig the ceremony for choosing a new king so that the dragon who supports them will win, giving them what they really want.  However, Cimorene foils their plan with the help of her friends.  The mystery/conspiracy elements of the story are great and help add weight to balance out the lighter, fairy tale parody elements.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The King’s Equal

The King’s Equal by Katherine Paterson, 1992.

Everyone dreads the day that Prince Raphael will rule the kingdom instead of his father.  Prince Raphael is good-looking and highly educated, but he’s also selfish and greedy.  His one outstanding characteristic is that he’s arrogant.  He assumes that no one knows as much as he does about anything and no one is as deserving as he is . . . of anything.  Knowing that, as the old king lies dying, he makes his final decree that the prince will not wear his crown until he is married to a woman who is his equal.

When the prince hears that, he immediately becomes angry, saying (as his father guessed he would) that there could not possibly be any woman in the world who is his equal, who is as rich, intelligent, or beautiful as he is.  After his father dies, the prince immediately begins looting the kingdom for his own gain and generally abusing his subjects (as they had also guessed he would).  Still, he doesn’t have the one thing he really wants: his father’s crown.

The prince orders his councilors to find him an appropriate bride but (as the councilors feared), the task proves impossible.  No matter what options they place before the prince, the prince finds something about them to nit-pick.  Princesses of fabulous wealth are not beautiful or intelligent enough for him.  Princesses who have amazing beauty either aren’t beautiful enough or don’t know enough.  Princesses with amazing knowledge are still lacking in some area of knowledge or are just plain ugly in the prince’s eyes.  One by one, he dismisses them all.

Meanwhile, a farmer in the prince’s kingdom, has sent his daughter, Rosamund, to live in the mountains with their goats to avoid having the prince confiscate their only livestock, which he has done with everyone else.  During the winter, Rosamund and the goats almost starve, but they are saved by a magical Wolf.

The Wolf assures Rosamund that her father is alive and well, and Rosamund says that she is worried about what is happening in the kingdom.  The Wolf tells Rosamund that the kingdom would be saved if the prince finds the princess that he is looking for and that she should go to the capital and present herself as that princess.  Rosamund doesn’t see how she can do that because she is definitely not as wealthy as the prince, and she doesn’t think of herself as particularly beautiful or clever.  However, the Wolf tells her that her mother, who died when she was born, had blessed her, that she would be a king’s equal.  To fulfill her dead mother’s wish, Rosamund does as the Wolf tells her.

To Rosamund’s surprise, the prince falls in love with her beauty at first sight.  She also impresses him with her intelligence when she tells him that she knows what no one else does, that he is actually very lonely.  (Which is natural, since he thinks that no one can be his equal or true companion.)  Although she cannot demonstrate that she possesses great wealth, she can demonstrate that there is nothing in particular that she wants while the prince still feels like he is lacking things he needs (like his father’s crown).  The prince is satisfied that Rosamund has passed all the necessary tests to be his equal, but Rosamund turns the tables on the prince by pointing out that his description of her has made her more than his equal, challenging him to prove to her that he is worthy of marrying her.

It is in meeting Rosamund’s challenge, taking care of her goats in the mountains for a year, Raphael learns humility from the Wolf.  While he’s away from the palace, Rosamund tends to the kingdom, ruling more compassionately than Raphael had.  When Raphael returns, he is humble enough that he doesn’t think that he is worthy of marrying Rosamund, but his humility is precisely what makes him worthy, and they do marry.

Overall, I liked the story, although I wish that we could see a little more of the conversation between Rosamund and Raphael when she explains to him who she really is. They still get married, so whatever Rosamund told Raphael must have persuaded him, but it’s left to the imagination how she explains it. How I picture it is partly based on the fact that, during the last year, Rosamund has lived as a princess, even though she was originally a goatherd, and Raphael has lived as a goatherd, even though he is really a prince. By the time the year is over, they have each lived in the other’s place, and that is what really makes them each other’s equal. Raphael was callous and arrogant because he never thought about how other people lived until he tried it himself.

I don’t know if Rosamund really learned anything from her experiences as a princess, which bothers me a little because I think that she really should have because it was so far outside of her experience. We don’t really hear about that because the focus is on Raphael’s changing character. Personally, I’d like to think that part of what Rosamund may have learned is that running a country is a big, difficult job, and that, while her rule was better than Raphael’s for being more compassionate, it’s not a job that she would like to do alone, emphasizing that she and Raphael would be better ruling as a team than either of them would be by themselves. If Rosamund and Raphael really both need each other, it would be fitting for a story about equals.

Magician’s Ward

Magician’s Ward by Patricia C. Wrede, 1998.

This is the sequel to Mairelon the Magician.  When the book begins, it has been about a year since Kim and Mairelon’s previous adventures.  Kim has been living with Mairelon as his apprentice, and he has been teaching her both reading and magic.  (In the previous book, Kim was living on the streets of early 19th century London.  She did not know how to read, and at the end of the previous book, she learned that she had the ability to become a wizard, prompting Mairelon to take her on for training.)  Although Kim enjoys spending time with Mairelon and appreciates what he’s teaching her, other aspects of life with Mairelon’s wealthy family are less appealing.  Kim gets bored reading by herself while Mairelon continues his work with the Royal College of Wizards, and Mairelon’s aunt, Mrs. Lowe, is trying to turn Kim into a proper young lady.  The pressures of the social niceties and obligations wear on Kim, and even more worryingly, Mrs. Lowe has been considering Kim’s marriage prospects.

In order to be socially-acceptable, Mrs. Lowe thinks that Kim should be considering a socially-acceptable marriage for her future.  For most of her life, marriage was about the last thing on Kim’s mind.  She spent most of her youth pretending to be a boy in order to be safer on the streets.  Since she became Mairelon’s apprentice, the challenges of reading and magic have occupied most of her time.  When Mrs. Lowe brings up the subject of marriage, the idea seems ridiculous to Kim.  With her poor background, she can’t imagine what kind of “respectable” man would want to marry her, and she can’t imagine anyone among the upper-class people of London she would want to marry.  However, she sees Mrs. Lowe’s point that she won’t be able to stay Mairelon’s apprentice and ward forever.  At some point, she will need to decide what to do once her training with Mairelon is complete.  It’s a little worrying to her that Mairelon (known to most people by his real name, Richard Merrill) hasn’t discussed the future with her and doesn’t seem to be making any plans.

Then, one night, Kim overhears someone breaking into the library in their house.  At first, Kim can’t imagine what someone would want in the library.  She interrupts the thief, and he manages to escape.  After colliding with her in the hallway, the thief leaves behind one of his buttons and a small piece of wood that seems to be magic.  When Mairelon examines the wood, he says that it appears that someone stored a spell inside it temporarily, to be used by someone else.  Also, whoever put the spell together didn’t do a very good job and probably didn’t really know what they were doing.

As for what the thief was looking for in the library, Mairelon discovers that he was particularly looking through a collection of books that his father purchased years ago from a French wizard who had come to England after fleeing the French Revolution.  In particular, the thief seems to be trying to obtain the memory book that belonged to the wizard’s wife.  A memory book is exactly what it sounds like – a book that that keeper would carry around with him or her and use to record certain things that he or she would particular want to remember, a little like a journal but often containing bits of important instructions, like notes about favorite recipes or cold remedies (not necessarily the entire recipe, just general reminder notes) or, in the case of a wizard, notes about important spells.

As they investigate further, they learn that the wizard and his wife were part of a larger society of wizards in France before the Revolution and that someone has been trying acquire all of their old books and notes to learn the secret of one of their spells, specifically a spell for sharing magical power.  The person who wants this knowledge has a nefarious purpose for it, and when Mairelon tries to interfere with his plans, he uses the knowledge he has acquired to block Mairelon’s own magic!  This spell and its power-hungry master has already harmed other magicians, and now, Mairelon is in danger, too.

Meanwhile, Mairelon and his family have decided that, in order for Kim to truly be accepted in society, she must have a coming out party.  The mystery and intrigue of the story mix with Kim’s new lesson in dancing, fashion, and social etiquette and the unexpected attention that she receives from young men as she begins truly mingling with the upper classes of society.  Part of the mystery actually does involve the tensions between social classes, social mobility, and the extent to which birth and natural ability influence both.  As Kim discovers that she is more acceptable in society and desirable to at least some of the upper-class young men, she also finds herself becoming jealous of the attention that Mairelon receives from young women in search of a good husband.

Like the first Mairelon book, this one is a nice mixture of mystery, fantasy, history, and comedy of manners.  Both of the Mairelon books are a fun mixture of intrigue and humor, and this one also has a nice romantic element as Kim realizes that the only man she could ever see herself marrying is Mairelon.  He’s eccentric and sometimes aggravating, but she loves him, and he has loved her all along, from the time when she was just a thief in the marketplace to her beginnings as a wizard and her transformation into a young lady. The book ends with Kim and Mairelon engaged to be married, and I’m sorry to say that there are no more books in the series after that. I really wish that there were because I think that there’s a lot more room for character development.

The villain’s plot in this book hinges on the earlier established principle that wizards are born, not made.  Only certain people have the ability to use magic.  For some people, like Kim, the ability to use magic can lift them to higher positions in life, and it can be a source of real power.  For a person who is unable to use magic, there aren’t as many options.  The villain in this book thinks that he’s found a way around the problem, but as Mairelon guessed from the first, he doesn’t really know what he’s doing.

Even though this book has been a favorite of mine for years, I noticed something this time that hadn’t really occurred to me before.  Mairelon’s aunt and mother in the book look at fashion and social obligations in a similar manner to people in high society and the business and legal professions (categories that overlap) in modern society, whereas Mairelon, who is considered pretty eccentric for a man of his family’s social standing, and other wizards seem to look at fashion and social obligations more like modern day academics, engineers, computer programmers, and other tech experts (at least, the ones I know because those are the kind of circles I tend to move in).  Within each of these categories, some of these characters are more knowledgeable about fashion or more socially adroit or intuitive, but I noticed that there are two basic schools of thought going on here.  For the high society types, fashion is essential and social activities are their main focus in life because that is how they build their connections, make the best possible marriage matches, gain support from others, and generally move up the social scale, always aiming to do a little better that they did before or set the stage for their children to move up.  For the wizards and academic types, fashion and social obligations are of secondary importance because what makes the biggest difference in their lives is knowledge and skill.  They even say that wizards are always considered socially acceptable because of their abilities and professional standing.  Because of that, they’re socially allowed some eccentricities in personal habits and dress, and many of them take those liberties as much as possible because most of them are kind of socially introverted and prefer either the privacy of their own studies or the company of others who share their professions and interests. 

At first, Mairelon doesn’t do much about Kim’s social education because it is not a subject that’s important to him and he knows that she can go pretty far in the field of magic by putting most of her efforts into building her magical skills.  However, what Mairelon’s mother and aunt try to impress upon both Mairelon and Kim is that they both need some social skills in order to function in wider society.  This is kind of like how tech experts may have some great ideas for creating new software or a new form of online business, but in order to get their ideas off the ground, they have to have some business knowledge or connections.  Wizards may be allowed to be a little less social or more eccentric than other people, and it’s generally understood and expected, but they do much better if they learn to balance their preferences with society’s expectations.  Because the people who normally occupy high society love the latest fashions and attending prestigious social events, they can’t understand why other people don’t. As the story says, they would leap to the assumption that a wizard, who is always acceptable in society, would naturally want to participate in society, and if the wizard didn’t, it must be that they are either not really a wizard or at least not a good one.  In other words, they would assume that something was wrong with the person or their skills, not recognizing that their choices are simply a matter of personal taste.  In order for Kim and Mairelon to truly rise in their professions, they also have to learn to manage their social obligations.

In the book, Renee is an example of a character who has learned this type of social, professional, and personal balance.  She is a wizard, and as a single female, is regarded as something of an eccentric, but she understands that social skills are important.  She is a longtime friend of Mairelon’s, and she lectures him somewhat on his social obligations and acts as something of a big sister/fashion mentor to Kim, along with Mairelon’s female relatives.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Mairelon the Magician

Mairelon the Magician by Patricia C. Wrede, 1991.

This young adult book takes place in an alternate history version of Regency England.  In this world, magic is a normal and accepted part of society.  “Wizard” is an accepted profession, and there is even a Royal College of Wizards dedicated to magic.  Not everyone can be a wizard because not everyone has the ability to use magic.  It is a skill that people are either born with or born without, similar to people who have an innate talent for art or music, compared to people who are born tone-deaf or color-blind.

In this early 19th century world, there is a teenage girl, Kim, who lives on the streets and survives by her own wits, taking whatever jobs she can and committing a little petty thievery whenever she needs to.  She has spent most of her life dressing like a boy and pretending that she is one because life on the streets is even more precarious for a girl.  For a time, she was part of a gang of child thieves run by a woman call Mother Tibb.  As far back as Kim can remember, Mother Tibb was the only one who took care of her as a child.  Kim has no memory of her parents or any knowledge about what happened to them.  She doesn’t even have a last name.  However, before the story begins, Mother Tibb was caught and hanged for her crimes.  Some of the other child thieves were apprehended and put in prison or exiled to Australia, but Kim managed to escape.  Since then, she has been on her own.  So far, she has managed to avoid being pressured in to joining up with other gangs or turning to prostitution to survive, but the fear of that haunts her. Her future is uncertain.

At the beginning of the book, Kim is hired to sneak into the wagon of a traveling magician who is performing in the market and to see what he keeps among his belongings.  The man who hired her doesn’t want her to take anything, but he is particularly eager to see if the magician has a particular silver bowl in possession.  It’s a strange request, but the money that the man offers Kim is too good to pass up.

However, the magician, who calls himself Mairelon, isn’t quite what he seems.  He is not just an ordinary traveling entertainer using some sleight of hand to amuse people in the market.  Kim discovers that he can do real magic as she searches his wagon and is knocked unconscious by a real magical spell that Mairelon uses to protect his belongings.

When Kim wakes up, Mairelon and his servant, called Hunch, have tied her up.  Unlike Hunch, Mairelon has also realized that Kim is actually a girl, not a boy.  The two of them question Kim about why she sneaked into the wagon, and she tells them the truth about being hired to do it.  When she describes the man who hired her, it seems that Mairelon recognizes the description.  The part about the silver bowl also unnerves him.

Surprisingly, Mairelon makes Kim an offer to come with him and Hunch when they leave London.  He is fascinated by Kim’s skills in picking locks, even the lock on the booby-trapped trunk that knocked her unconscious, and he thinks that Kim might be useful to him and Hunch, perhaps helping with the magic act.  In return, he offers to teach Kim some of his magic tricks.  Hunch is dubious about Kim because she has obviously been a thief, and Kim also isn’t sure what to make of Mairelon.  She knows that he’s hiding something, but she isn’t sure what.  No one with real magical abilities like him would ordinarily be making a living with simple magic tricks in the market. 

However, Kim does accept the offer because she’s been worried about one of the major criminals in the area, Dan Laverham, who has been showing too much interest in recruiting her. He is heavily involved with a number of criminal activities, and he knows that Kim is a skilled lock pick.  If he found out that she was a girl, he would probably also press her into prostitution. Dan Laverham would be a good reason to get out of London for a while.  Also, Kim realizes that if she learns a few magic tricks from Mairelon, she might be able to set herself up as an entertainer and make an honest living, safe no matter who finds out that she’s female.  Besides, Kim realizes that if she’s not satisfied with the situation, she could always run away later.

Before leaving London with Mairelon, she returns to the man who hired her, at Mairelon’s suggestion, and tells him that she didn’t see a silver bowl in Mairelon’s wagon (which is true because she was knocked unconscious and didn’t see anything in the trunk).  The man is angry, but Mairelon, who followed her in disguise, helps to create a distraction so that she can get away from the man.  They leave London in the middle of the night because Mairelon says that he was spotted by someone who recognized him when he went out to get magic ingredients.

On the journey, Kim gradually gets to know Mairelon and his situation.  The silver bowl, which Mairelon does have, is actually part of a set of magical objects which, when used together, can compel people to tell the truth without interfering with their ability to answer questions intelligently.  Mairelon’s real name is Richard Merrill, and he is, or was, part of the Royal College of Wizards.  Years earlier, the Royal College of Wizards was analyzing this particular set of magical objects and the unique spell that they control, when they were suddenly stolen, and Merrill was framed for the theft.  At the time, Merrill was unable to prove his innocence (at least not without sounding as if he had done something inappropriate with a lady, which he also did not do – they were just together at the time of the theft because she was helping him and another friend with a magical experiment), but he was also recruited by his friend in the government to be a spy against the French, so the story of his supposed theft gave him a plausible reason for wanting to leave the country.  In the time since then, he and his friend have continued to look into the matter of the theft, and they have made some progress in tracking down the other pieces of the magical set.  At the time that Kim met him, he was on his way to the next piece of the set, a silver platter.

To their surprise, however, they soon discover that someone has been making copies of the platter.  The copies are not magical, but they do confuse the issue.  Who is making the copies and why would they want copies, since they do not have the powers that the original has?  As Kim and Mairelon investigate, they crash a house party at a lavish country estate and spy on a meeting of a rather inept society of druids.  All the while, they are getting closer and closer to finding the original thief.

I loved the combination of mystery, fantasy, history, and humor in this book!  It’s one of my all-time favorites.  It has a happy ending with Mairelon’s name cleared and the thief caught.  They also discover that Kim has the ability to use magic, and Mairelon offers to take her on as his apprentice, saving her from the streets forever.  There is a sequel to this book called Magician’s Ward, about Kim’s life and adventures as Mairelon’s student.  The hints of romance in this book are also much stronger in the next one.  There are only two books in this series, which is disappointing because the characters are so much fun, and I think that there is a lot more room for their development.  By the end of the next book, Kim’s future is looking more certain, but her past is still murky.  Originally, I had expected that there would be secrets revealed about Kim’s past because of her ability to use magic, possibly something that was passed on to her by her parents.  However, by the end of the second book, Kim still doesn’t know who her parents were/are, and it doesn’t look like there’s any chance that she will ever know.  Perhaps it doesn’t really matter. Sometimes, secrets are more tantalizing when you imagine the answers than when you actually find out.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Cabin Faced West

The Cabin Faced West by Jean Fritz, 1958.

Ten-year-old Ann Hamilton hasn’t been very happy since her family decided to move West.  Her family lives in 18th century Pennsylvania, and moving West means homesteading in an area where there are few other families, none of which have girls Ann’s age.  Her father and brothers love the adventure of starting over in a new place on the western frontier (what is considered the frontier for their era), but Ann is lonely, surrounded by boys, and missing their old home.  When her father built their cabin, he purposely placed it so that the door faces to the west because he says that’s where their future lies.  Ann’s brothers, Daniel and David, also make up a rule that no one can complain about the west (partly because Ann had already been doing a lot of complaining), saying that anyone who does so will get a bucket of water poured over their head, and they make a game out of trying to catch each other complaining about something.  So, there is nothing Ann can do but suffer in silence and write in her diary, a present from her cousin Margaret when the family left Gettysburg.

There’s a boy close to her age who lives nearby, Andy McPhale, but Ann doesn’t think much of him.  He makes jokes about her being “eddicated” because she can read and write.  Sometimes, he seems like he wants to play with her, but she’s a girl, and he doesn’t want to play girl games.

Andy McPhale also worries about his mother.  His father believes in hunting and trapping more than planting.  Rather than grow some of their food, Andy’s father goes off for days at a time on hunting expeditions, leaving his family with very little while he’s gone.  Ann’s family thinks that this is a sign of poor planning for the future and don’t think highly of Andy’s father for it.

Later, they meet a young man named Arthur Scott who has just arrived in the area and is looking for land to settle on.  When Mr. Scott first arrives, he meets Ann on the road.  Ann has allowed the hearth fire to go out, and she is on her way to her aunt and uncle’s house to borrow some from them because she doesn’t know how to start a fire by herself.  Understanding her problem, Mr. Scott gives Ann a ride home on his horse and helps her to restart the fire, promising not to tell her parents.  They invite him to stay for lunch, and he talks about his time at Valley Forge with Washington’s soldiers when he was only 13 years old.  He was too young to fight, but he volunteered to drive an ammunition wagon.  Ann thinks of George Washington as a hero, and she finds it thrilling that Mr. Scott served with him.

Arthur Scott becomes a friend of the Hamilton family, and Andy McPhale seems jealous of him and the attention that Ann pays to him.  Then, Andy tells her that his family has decided to go back to town for the winter.  In the spring, they will return to the area and try farming, persuaded by their experiences working with the Hamiltons.  To Ann’s surprise, Andy offers for Ann to come with them.  She could visit Gettysburg and stay with her cousin Margaret again.  Ann has been lonely, being the only girl in the area, and it’s a tempting offer.  However, Ann feels like she must stay for her family’s sake and so she won’t feel like a deserter.  When a storm destroys a good part of her family’s crop, she feels terrible and wonders if it’s all really worth it.

In the end, there is a great surprise coming for Ann: she gets to meet her hero, George Washington, when he comes to see some land that he has purchased nearby.

The story is based on the real life of Ann Hamilton, the great-great-grandmother of the author of this book, who did get to meet George Washington in 1784. The real Ann Hamilton married Arthur Scott when she grew up.  The place where they lived, called Hamilton Hill in the story, is now called Ginger Hill.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Felicity’s Craft Book

American Girls

Felicity’s Craft Book by Rebecca Sample Bernstein and Jodi Evert, 1994.

This is a companion book to the Felicity, An American Girl series.  It explains about the types of crafts that people would do in Colonial America and gives instructions for projects that readers can make at home.

In the beginning of the book, there is a brief history of crafting in America.  It explains that, in the earliest days of the American colonies, people had to get most of their goods from Europe because they had to spend their time and energy on building homes and establishing farms in order to survive.  However, as the colonies became more established, people were more able to make goods for themselves, both in their own homes and as professional craftspeople.  By the time that Felicity lived, during the late 1700s, there were many skilled craftspeople, and those craftspeople also trained new people in their professions in apprenticeships.

Before presenting craft projects that readers can make, the book also offers a few tips for safety and neatness while making things. The crafts are also divided into sections relating to topics like writing, sewing, games and toys, and scented objects that you can make with plants.

The projects explained in this book include:

A quill pen and two types of ink – The book gives instructions for making ink from different types of berries (such as raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries, which make red or purple ink) and walnut shells (which makes a brown ink).

A wax seal – To be used with sealing wax or wax from a candle. These were used to seal letters before the invention of envelopes with glue. (I know that there are people and companies that still make these because I have one myself and the sealing wax to use with it.)

Game of Graces – A hoop with a pair of sticks that were used for a tossing game.

Cup and Ball Game – A common toy in which a cup is attached to the end of a short stick and a ball is tied to it.  Players have to move the toy around and make the ball swing into the cup.

Kites – Made with lightweight paper.

Folding Fan – Made with poster board and ribbon.

Fancy Straw Hat – Explains how to decorate a hat with flowers and ribbon.

Fruit Pyramid – Used as a table centerpiece.

Cross-Stitch Sampler – A basic sampler using only the cross-stitch. (Colonial girls would create more elaborate samplers to show off the range of stitches they could make.)

Sachet – A small bag of potpourri (sweet-smelling dried plants).  Colonists would put sachets into trunks and wardrobes where they were storing their clothes to make them smell nice.  (Some people still do this in modern times.)  In a later part of the book, they also give instructions for making potpourri with herbs and flower petals.

Friendship Pincushion – An embroidered pincushion.

Tussie-Mussie – A small bouquet, like the kind that bridesmaids and flower girls might carry.  (The book says that people in Colonial times might carry one or maybe a pomander ball if they went to visit a sick person because they had an idea that breathing bad air would spread sickness and they were trying to freshen the air with fresh scents.  That’s not quite how sickness is spread, but they were partly correct about sicknesses being airborn.)

Pomander Ball – An orange scented and decorated with spices and cloves.  Besides freshening the air, they can also make nice decorations.

In the sections about different types of projects, there is additional historical information about life and crafts in Colonial America. Because, in the books, Felicity’s grandfather owns a plantation and one of the books takes place there, the craft book also has a section about plantations that includes a brief description of plantation life and slavery, noting that the lifestyle and pastimes that plantation owners enjoyed would not have been possible without their slaves to take care of the plantation chores for them.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Molly’s Cook Book

American Girls

Molly’s Cook Book by Polly Athan, Rebecca Sample Bernstein, Terri Braun, Jodi Evert, and Jeanne Thieme, 1994.

This is a companion book to the Molly, An American Girl series.  It has recipes from the 1940s that people would have made during World War II.  A section at the beginning of the book explains how shortages and rationing during the war changed the way that people shopped for food and cooked.  For example, people on the homefront didn’t have many canned foods because many canned foods were shipped overseas to soldiers and much of the metal that would have been used to make more cans for food was being used to make other war supplies.  Because certain types of food were in short supply, individuals and families would receive ration books, which contained stamps that represented which types of foods they would be able to buy and how much.  Cookbooks printed during the war focused on creating meals that used little or no rationed products.  People also planted Victory gardens and grew their own vegetables to fill out their meals.

The cookbook is divided into sections for different meals:

Breakfast – Fried Potatoes, Toad-in-a-Hole (not the British dish – this is eggs cooked in a frame of bread, what I first learned to make as Eggs-in-a-Frame), Fried Bacon, Quick Coffee Cake, and Frozen Fruit Cups.

Dinner – Vitamin A Salad (made with carrots and lemon gelatin), Deviled Eggs, Carrot Curls and Celery Fans, Vitality Meat Loaf, Parsley Biscuits, Volcano Potatoes, and Applesauce Cupcakes.

Favorite Foods – French toast, Waldorf salad, PBJ Roll-ups, Jelly Flags, Victory Garden Soup, Nut-and-Raisin Bread, and Fruit Bars.

In each section of recipes, there is more historical information about food in World War II.  There is also a section in the back with party ideas from the 1940s.

For more World War II recipes, I recommend The 1940’s Experiment, which is a blog with recipes from World War II and an explanation of how they can be used to both save money and lose weight because they were intentionally designed to make maximum use of limited resources, both economically and nutritionally. In Molly’s Cook Book, there is a chart that government experts during World War II used to give people guidance on how to budget their food money among seven food groups. The diet that they recommended, both nutritionally and to limit certain rationed foods, was heavy on vegetables and fruits and lighter on meats, grains, and dairy products. This type of diet is basically in keeping with modern nutritional advice, which also emphasizes the importance of vegetables and fruit.

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

Do-It-Yourself Magic

Do-It-Yourself Magic by Ruth Chew, 1987.

Rachel and her younger brother, Scott, stop by the discount store on the way home to admire the model kits.  Most of the model kits are too expensive for them to buy, but one kit has been put on discount, The Build-Anything Kit.  The kids think it’s a good deal because they can use it to build more than one kind of model. 

When they get it home and begin to play with it, they are confused at first.  Scott tries to build a model stock car racer, but all the wheels and other pieces are all different sizes.  Then, Rachel finds a double-headed hammer labeled, “sizer.”  The kids discover that when they hit the model pieces with the hammer, they can make them bigger or smaller.  Besides working on pieces, the sizer can also make people bigger or smaller.  Rachel makes Scott smaller so that he can drive his stock car model around the room.  Then, when he drives outside, she makes both him and the car bigger, so the car is the size of a normal car.  A neighbor spots them in this strange car and calls the police, so the children are forced to shrink the car again quickly. 

When they get home, they discover that they left the door open and that a man is trying to steal their tv set.  Without thinking, Rachel hits him with the sizer and shrinks him.  Now, they have to decide what to do with him before the situation gets worse!

At first, the kids keep the thief in a glass, but then they let him out and allow him to drive around in the stock car model.  While they are trying to decide what to do with him, they take a look in the model box again and notice some pieces that weren’t there before.  They look and feel like stone blocks, so they begin building a castle with them.  To their surprise, the man they shrunk runs into the castle.  They are worried about him, so they hit the castle with the sizer to make it bigger.  Suddenly, the castle is as large as life, and they go inside to discover that they are back in medieval times. What will happen to the thief in the past, and will the kids get back home?

The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.

The Ravenmaster’s Secret

The Ravenmaster’s Secret by Elvira Woodruff, 2003.

Forrest Harper is the son of the Ravenmaster of the Tower of London in 1735.  The story begins by explaining the tradition of keeping ravens at the Tower of London because of the superstition that the Tower would be conquered by its enemies if the ravens ever abandoned it.  This superstition led to the creation of the job of Ravenmaster, who looks after a flock of ravens that live at the Tower with wings clipped so that they can’t fly away.

Forrest Harper lives at the Tower with his parents and sisters, training to become a Ravenmaster, like his father.  He likes the ravens, and they like him.  He is pretty good at caring for ravens, but there is something that bothers him: he thinks that he isn’t brave enough and that others think that he is a coward, too.  He is smaller than the other boys and is often teased.  He has trouble cutting up the squirrels that the rat catcher’s boy (his only real friend, although his mother doesn’t approve of him) brings to him to feed to the ravens.  Even though it’s necessary, Forrest doesn’t like the sight of blood and feels kind of sorry for the squirrels.  Worse still, when Forrest’s family attends the public hangings (which were treated as a kind of festival day with music and entertainment in Forrest’s time), Forrest is unable to look at the criminals who are being hanged.  The one time he does try it, he throws up, and again, the other boys tease him mercilessly for it.  Forrest’s problem, as readers will see, isn’t so much that he’s a coward as he has more empathy than the other boys, both for animals and people, and that isn’t really as much of a problem as he believes.  His father tells him to ignore the bullies because they are foolish, and their foolishness will show in time.

Forrest sometimes dreams of going out into the wider world, beyond the Tower, where he could do something brave that would impress everyone.  The rat catcher’s boy, whose real name is Ned although most people just call him Rat, also dreams of running away because he is an orphan, treated harshly by his master and always in danger of being turned over to the chimney sweep to be used as a climbing boy.  He doesn’t think that Forrest has a real problem because his life at the Tower is pretty good, living comfortably at the Tower with his parents, whatever the local bullies say.  Still, the two boys often imagine what it would be like to go to sea together and have adventures.  When there is an announcement that a new prisoner will be arriving at the Tower, a Scottish Jacobite rebel, Forrest thinks that helping to guard a dangerous rebel will make the Tower bullies respect him.

To Forrest’s surprise and embarrassment, this rebel actually turns out to be a girl.  She is the daughter of the rebel Owen Stewart, who is being held in a different tower at the Tower of London (the Tower of London is actually a fortress with multiple towers – she is imprisoned in Bloody Tower and her father is in Bell Tower).  She has been charged with treason, along with her father and uncle.  Forrest isn’t happy about being given the task of taking food to a girl prisoner. 

However, Madeline McKay Stewart, the girl prisoner, is pretty tough in her own right.  Although Maddy’s been separated from her father and uncle and all three of them are likely to be executed, she is being pretty brave about it.  She talks to Rat and Forrest.  She is interested in Forrest’s pet raven, Tuck, and tells him about how she used to feed baby owls back home.  She talks about her life and family in Scotland, and Forrest realizes that he’s starting to think of her as a friend instead of an enemy to be guarded.

While Forrest is used to hearing English people criticize the Scots for being “savage,” he is astonished and a bit offended when Maddy talks about English people being “evil.”  For the first time, it makes him think of the situation from the other side.  He knows that not all English people are evil and realizes, having seen that Maddy actually has refined manners, that Scottish people aren’t “savage.”  One day, at Maddy’s request, he takes a message to her father in exchange for her ring, which he plans to sell in order to buy Ned back from the chimney sweep after the rat catcher loses his term of indenture to the chimney sweep in a game of cards, sparing him from the horrible life and health problems that the young climbing boys suffer.  Then, Owen Stewart gives Forrest a message to take back to Maddy.  Without really meaning to, Forrest realizes that he has suddenly become a go-between for the rebels and could be considered a conspirator under English law.

As Forrest considers the fate that lies ahead for Maddy and the nature of war between England and the Scottish rebels, it occurs to him that the adults in his life have often done the opposite of the things that they have always taught him were important.  His father always emphasized fairness, yet the war and Maddy’s possible execution are unfair.  Maddy shares Forrest’s feeling that the world might be a better place if people didn’t become adults and abandon their values.

Then, Maddy’s father and uncle are shot while attempting to escape, and Maddy is left completely alone.  Forrest feels badly for Maddy.  Soon after, he is unexpectedly approached by a carpenter who seems to know that he has become friends with Maddy.  The carpenter, who is a stranger to Forrest, tells him that Maddy will soon be executed by beheading but that he has a way to save her life.  Forrest has to decide if he is willing to trust the stranger and save Maddy, knowing that doing so would make him a traitor himself.

One of the parts of this story that interested me was how Forrest noted the hypocrisy in the adults around him as he was trying to decide what he should do.  Qualities that adults often praise and try to instill in their children are often ignored in the way that the adults live and even in how they treat other children, like Ned and Maddy.  Abandoning values, even the ones that they really want their children to have, isn’t something that adults have to do as they grow older, but it is something that some adults do if they think they must in order to live as they want to live or accomplish something that they want to accomplish.  The adults who think that Maddy should be beheaded would probably say that they were doing it for the greater good in promoting their cause against the rebels.  However, treating Ned as a piece of disposable property is something that they mostly do because they can and because they know that there is nothing that Ned can do to stop them.  Ned actually tries to repay his indenture legally with money that Forrest gives him, but although the sweep accepts the money, he refuses to let him go, saying that no one will take Ned’s word over his and that he could always use the money to make sure that Ned is hung as a thief if he tries to make trouble.  It is this type of attitude and situation that make the children realize that they are on their own to solve their problems and that working within the law is not going to be an option for them because the law is not just and it is not on their side.  It’s a frustrating situation, and I often feel frustrated when I encounter this type of thing in books, but fortunately, things do turn out well in the end.

This is one of those coming-of-age stories where a boy must decide what he stands for and where he really belongs.  Through Maddy and the inscription on her ring, which means “Face Your Destiny,” Forrest comes to understand the destiny that is right for him as he helps both Maddy and Ned escape to a better life elsewhere. 

The book also includes some interesting historical information. There’s a map of the Tower of London in the front of the book, and in the back, a short history of the Tower with information about famous prisoners and escapes. There is also a glossary of English and Scottish words that modern children (especially American children) might not know, such as breeches, wench, loch, and tattie-bogle (scarecrow).


The book is currently available online through Internet Archive.  (To borrow a book through Internet Archive, you have to sign up for an account, but it’s free, and then you read the book in your browser window.)

Spoiler: In the last chapter of the book, it explains what happened to the characters after the story ends.  Forrest does become the Ravenmaster after his father, realizing that it is the right kind of life for him and that he no longer desires to have adventures outside the Tower.  He has a wife and daughter, and years later, he receives a message from Ned, who says that he has become a captain in the Royal Navy and that Maddy has gone to live in the colonies with other Stewarts (something that my own Jacobite ancestors did, which is how I got to where I am now).