Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Sorcery & Cecelia: Or The Enchanted Coffee Pot by Caroline C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer (1988).

My worn and much-loved copy
This is one of my beloved books, a top ten ("top ten" is on par with "trilogy;" as a trilogy can now include more than three books, my top ten is probably a hundred books or more, ever changing).  As with all my beloved books, I do not know how many times I've read The Sorcery & Cecelia.  I know I return to it every few years because in the pantheon of best books I love, this is definitely in the top tier, like a large,colorful icing floret on the tip-top of the many layered cake of my literary life.  If this were a wedding cake, the bride and groom may be Tolkien and Lewis (who both probably just rolled over in their respective graves at that bit of far fetched and vaguely inappropriate imagery).  But Sorcery ranks up there; perhaps a flower girl.  It's fitting that right off the bat, the the authors thank Tolkien - as well as Jane Austen, Georgette Heyer, and Ellen Kushner; they are the allspice that peppers this book through and through.

When I finished Cecelia (in addition to wondering why Kate doesn't get any billing at all), I pondered what my other top tier books were.  I thought to make it to the top of the cake, they had to have been re-read over the years,  with equal parts delight, bemusement, a small dose (but not too much) of nostalgia, and a large ability for dynamic reading - does each re-reading change the meaning; does it remain important to me over time, but in different ways.  My beloved Tolkien, for example, who I loved so much that I have a Smaug tattoo on my body for the rest of my life, has fallen slightly in the pantheon.  Re-reading The Hobbit remains a joy; I love the characters and story, and always long to either read it aloud and share it anew, or meet with like-minded Hobbits and perform it together.  But the bigger, grander Lord of the Rings hasn't weathered (for me) as well.  I still appreciate the grandeur and scope, but I don't like the books as much as I did in high school; I find them tedious in parts, and occasionally the epic becomes almost heavy enough to collapse on itself.  Will it be the epic of our time that lasts through the ages?  I'm pretty sure that will be true, but Harry Potter, for example, is giving LOTR a run for the money (anathema, but true). 

Narnia still makes the top tier, if I can dump The Last Battle into the garbage.   I am aware of the problems with Narnia - blunt object Christian allegory, simplistic, sexist in parts, un-Tolkienish world building (Dryads and dwarves - fantasy heresy).  But for all the weaknesses, Lewis created unforgettable characters thrust into believable and exciting fantasy situations; maybe it was the first time as a child I read about children making their way in the world without adults, and thriving - they all become kings and queens, or defeat evil usurpers, or rescue captured princes. I didn't discover E. Nesbit until later in my literary life, so her works seem Lewisian to me rather than the other way around; but that chatty, never talking down, often pointed but often soothing style that Lewis adopts from Nesbit is also what makes these books so utterly re-readable.   I can return to Narnia again and again, and try as I might, any holes I poke in the Aslan balloon just never feels right to me; I always feel guilty.  If I'm on my deathbed, and I want to read one last book, I'm hoping the Chronicles of Narnia are right there to comfort me and send me home for the last time.

Not every book in the top tier is a children's novel, although many are:  Aloha Susan by Helen Hoyt comes to mind; The Pink Motel by Carol Ryrie Brink; Escape from Warsaw by Ian Serrallier. The Changeling by Zilpha Keatley Snyder still resonates for me.  The Headless Cupid I would have added, but I don't think it rings as bright for me anymore; I think The Witches Sister by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor has as similar feel; second layer books, still important but as time has gone by, not as influential.

Howard's End by E.M. Forster sits up there with Tolkien and Lewis.  It's a perfect book, in my opinion, incredible writing like a orb spider web outlined in dew, strong and completely beautiful.  Characters that are memorable (not particularly lovable), that sit in your brain and talk to you forever about connecting with others, about love and marriage and family and middle class.  That's a book.
The Age of Innocence by EdithWharton has occupied that place for me;   My Antonia by Willa Cather still sits there too.  Each are books I re-read periodically, not as often as Howard's End, but enough  to call them first tier (albeit towards the bottom).  Influential.  Magnificently written. 

Terry Pratchett and Anne McCaffrey are authors like that for me (although not every single book).   Agatha Christie too.   I'm re-reading Pratchett, and finding him to be as wonderful as I remembered; certainly our best satirical writer, a modern day Swift.  Christie I'm re-reading as well; she's definitely not a writer of classics, but her plots and characters are superb.  Not just genre writers can learn from Christie about how make characters believable and plots move.  McCaffrey, I haven't read in many years; it may be time to return, although I have so many more I'd like to read.

Connie Willis and Jo Walton are both literary muses of the highest order; I have yet to dislike a single book they've written.  A literary world without them is a sad place. I used to really love Sherri S. Tepper; but these two have supplanted her.  If Tolkien and Lewis are the grooms at the top of the literary cake, I'd like Willis and Walton to be the brides.

There are others, of course, Michener comes to mind.  Margaret Mitchell, although now find her racist portrayals repugnant.  Mary Poppins and A.A. Milne and E.B. White and Frog & Toad.  Robert Silverberg's Majipoor Chronicles.  Steven Saylor's Roman mystery series.  His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman (at least The Golden Compass; I was less a fan of the other books).  Some Will Durant. 

Diana Wynne Jones.  She needs a line all her own.

Sorcery is one of those books.  I don't particularly have the same feeling for other books by Caroline Stevermer and Patricia C. Wrede.  Stevermer's other books I've liked better; they are set in a world I enjoy reading about, that's similar enough to the Georgian magical England the two of them created, but not as lighthearted.  Wrede's other books haven't ever worked quite as well for me; I've enjoyed them without falling deeply in love with them.  Wrede and Stevermer wrote two more Cecy and Kate books, but they lacked the freshness of Sorcery.  That's always what the book feels like to me, even after re-reading it a dozen times:  fresh.  I always think what a great idea this letter game must have been, how devoted they were to it, how much fun it must have been, how I wish I had a friend to do that with, and knowing full well I couldn't pull off anything as exciting.  I love the setting.  

This was new territory to me when I first read it, so many years ago.  Diana Wynne Jones was doing a similar type of book in 1988, but I had probably only just discovered Witch Week.  The only hedge magic I knew about was Betwitched from television; Magica de Spell from Uncle Scrooge comics is a Miranda type villainess,but she's a duck and a comic strip character;  Sabrina and Wendy were comic book witches too.  I don't recall any other kinds of this funny, witty, fresh, sometimes scholarly magic before this time.  Everything about this book felt unique to me, and still does.  I had not yet read or scene Pride or Prejudice, nor heard of Georgette Heyer.  Fantasy back in 1988 was still very male:  Tolkien, Tolkien knock-offs like Shannara, Piers Anthony.  Pern wasn't a magical world, even though it contained dragons.  I hadn't yet discovered Pratchett.  The Witch's Sister and Miss Switch approached this area.  I knew of Bedknobs and Broomsticks from the movie, but hadn't read the book.

Was anyone writing this particularly kind of fantasy before then:  the alternate history in which magic exists in and interacts with actual historical events and persons?  Sorcery does just this; Wellington, the Prince Regent, Lord Melbourne and Lady Caroline Lamb and Lord Byron.  This the backdrop, albeit with a tingle of magic about the whole thing.  It's so brilliant, so absolutely gobsmacking brilliant.  Since devouring this again and again, and finding others, not quite as good (Or hideous;  Johnathan Strange and Mr. Norrell can go fuck themselves; Sorcery is a superior book in all ways).    I had decided in the parallel universe where I am a writer, I'm writing this exact kind of book that witty and full of funny characters, some light comedy, a bit of adventure, and a punch of almost melodramatic doom,.  Sorcery says nothing about the human pysche or middle class mores, and history.  But it is full of teachable moments on how to craft a perfect novel - and how to co-write a perfect novel.   I will return to this well for refreshment again and again the rest of my life.

My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the parallel universe where I'm a writer of fantasy fiction, I hope all the books that I write are almost as good as Sorcery and Cecelia. I say "almost" because nothing I could write in any universe can possible surpass this, one of my favorite books of all time. I'm not an expert, but I am going to guess that when this book was first published in 1988, it was delightfully unique. Alternate history, with magic, and epistolary fiction on top of that. All of this has been done since, some of this had been done before - but there isn't many books out there that do this so well. I own the original Ace paperback, and was one of the few back in the good old days that was even aware of this book, before it was re-released, before the two (sort of humdrum) sequels. Sorcery is so brilliant, so absolutely gobsmacking brilliant. I devoured this again and again over the years, and it always feels fresh and new each time I re-read it. It's like visiting old friends. I have read many books I love, but this one is definitely among the cream at the top.

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