From Street-Rat to Improper Lady: Patrica C. Wrede’s A Matter of Magic

Patricia C. Wrede is one of the first fantasy writers whose works I fell head over heels in love with as book-inhaling child, and one of the few I’ve read remarkably little of for all that. Her Enchanted Forest Chronicles are the rare children’s novels that have only gotten better as I’ve aged (they’re firmly on my list of books to read to my hypothetical-but-unlikely future offspring). During my bookstore clerk days, I stumbled across the reprint of Sorcery and Cecilia, or, The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, her collaboration with Caroline Stevermere. It reminded me that there is a whole oeuvre beyond the Enchanted Forest Chronicles I’d somehow managed to overlook. I then proceeded to forget about the whole thing for five years. It may thus be considered a minor miracle that A Matter of Magic, the omnibus reprint of Mairelon the Magician and The Magician’s Ward found its way into my home.

I was a little worried when I saw the cover – it features a young woman in an embroidered dress with her hair in a careful updo, and the marketing blurb on the back implies a generic Pygmalion rehash. The cover, thankfully, is a filthy liar. The protagonist, Kim, is a London street thief with the densest street dialectic I’ve seen in print yet. To this Western Canadian, it’s almost unintelligible at times, and it’s fantastic. Though Kim learns other English dialects over the course of the novels, this remains a part of her identity she’s not about to give up and one she is refreshingly unashamed of it. Occasionally made to be self-conscious, definitely.

Identity, and the roles people play, is an overarching theme of the set, one integral to the two key characters. Kim and Mairelon get along so well in part because they’re both keenly aware of their respective roles. Kim is playing a part from the first. Her time on the street was spent disguised as a boy, a matter of survival – she makes explicit early on that she has no desire to end up in “the stews.” It serves her well later on, enabling her to adapt to life as Kim Merrill, apprentice-ward to gentleman-wizard Richard Merrill. Even then, she slips easily back into street-rat Kim when needed and remains keenly aware that “polite company” is just another mask people wear. Interestingly, she insists on calling him Mairelon and he is content to let her, despite frequent reprimands from his Aunt Agatha.

For Mairelon’s part, we first meet him performing as a street magician, carefully chosen as the last thing a genuine magician would be suspected of. This isn’t his first role – he’s fresh from spying for the English government in France, back to clear his name of the theft that made such a perfect excuse for being out of country in the first place. This has made him as comfortable on the street with Kim as he is mingling with high society. He immediately impresses upon Kim the value of a role, giving her the self-awareness she previously lacked.

Yet, he takes Kim at face value; it doesn’t occur to him to do otherwise, Hunch’s cautions nothwithstanding. It doesn’t matter to him that she broke into his wagon, it matters that she’s forthright from the start. This becomes the cornerstone of their relationship. It’s soon clear that they share an unorthodox approach to problem solving. In the second book, it’s a source of frustration to those around them that neither are concerned with propriety so much as the best way to get the task at hand done. He doesn’t try to force her into a traditionally feminine role; she’s treated as a capable person with good judgment throughout.

Mairelon’s atypical worldview is why their relationship works and emphasizes the self-determination that drives Kim. She isn’t a passive heroine – she’s on the lookout for her own best interests and isn’t afraid to jump at an opportunity or speak her mind. She’s kept herself intact on the street for years by being smart and knowing how to best use the resources at hand; she’s a thief because she needs to be, not because she can be. The attempts to gentrify her don’t dull her, either. In The Magician’s Apprentice, she insists successfully on being consulted on and involved in matters that impact her own life. It’s a tribute to Mairelon’s character that he has the good grace to back her up. The formal tea visit Aunt Agatha first drags Kim to is a delight, both for Kim’s demonstration of conversational quick-wittedness and Mairelon’s politely gleeful pot-stirring; the result is a tone-setting encounter rife with undercurrents.

The duology does not bow to genre convention in a few critical places. Kim is not some long-lost aristocratic by-blow, and she has no interest whatsoever in fitting in with “polite company” even as she acknowledges the advantages of being able to navigate it. There is no mention of her parentage at all – Kim doesn’t think about it and Mairelon doesn’t ask. She’s no social climber; the assumption that she’s in London with Mairelon for the sole purpose of finding a husband horrifies her.

Furthermore, it’s not a magical-education story. Yes, Kim learns magic, but she’s an apprentice, and she is neither miraculously powerful nor a suspiciously fast learner. She’s inquisitive and good at putting facts together, which is what carries her through. She averts disaster at the end of the second book by applying reason, not by magic.

This being a Regency story, there is the usual romantic misunderstanding, but it’s well handled and unforced, allowing the relationship to develop naturally and keeping the complications firmly in character for both parties. My biggest complaint is where Wrede ends the story, at the agreement to marry. Kim is too interesting a character to let her life stop at a white dress. At the last possible moment, we hear that she has been offered take on investigations in an official capacity rather than waiting for them to come to her. Though Wrede thereby makes it clear that there is indeed life after marriage, I’m crushed that she hasn’t seen fit to show it to us.