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Smugglivus 2010 Book Review: A Matter of Magic by Patricia C. Wrede

Title: A Matter of Magic (comprising previously published novels Mairelon the Magician and The Magician’s Ward)

Author: Patricia C. Wrede

Genre: Fantasy

When a stranger offers her a small fortune to break into a traveling magician’s wagon, Kim doesn’t hesitate. Having grown up a waif in the dirty streets of London, Kim isn’t above a bit of breaking-and-entering. A hard life and lean times have schooled her in one lesson: steal from them before they steal from you. But when the magician catches her in the act, Kim thinks she’s done for. Until he suggests she become his apprentice; then the real trouble begins.

Kim soon finds herself entangled with murderers, thieves, and cloak-and-dagger politics, all while trying to learn how to become both a proper lady and a magician in her own right. Magic and intrigue go hand in hand in Mairelon the Magician and The Magician’s Ward, two fast-paced novels filled with mystery and romance, set against the intricate backdrop of Regency England.

Publisher: Orb
Publication Date: June 2010
Paperback: 448 pages

Stand alone or series: Duology (self-contained)

How did I get this book: Bought

Why did I read this book: I *love* Patricia C. Wrede’s books – her Dragons series is one of my favorites from childhood – so when I saw this rerelease (which I had never heard of before), I had to have it.


Re-released this year as a single volume, A Matter of Magic actually comprises two full-length novels Mairelon the Magician and its immediate sequel The Magician’s Ward. The first book opens with Kim, a young ragamuffin eying Mairelon, a flashy street magician, performing on the bustling streets of London. Some “toff” (rich lord) has promised her a tidy purse to break into Mairelon’s wagon and poke around to find a specific silver bowl, a task which seems innocent and easy enough. Little does Kim know that Mairelon is an actual magician (not just a street performer with quick hands and parlor tricks), and when she is caught in the act, she finds herself in a bit of a pickle. Not only does Mairelon immediately discern Kim is in fact a girl (alarming, since Kim has fought long and hard to keep her gender a secret on the rough streets), but he also takes an interest in the stubborn thief and invites her to join him and his assistant/manservant Hunch on what promises to be a great adventure. With little to keep Kim on the dangerous streets, she warily agrees to travel with the bizarre young magician (who clearly is a toff himself), and begins to learn how to read, speak all flash-like (that is, she learns to shed her incredibly thick street slang), and some of Mairelon’s non-magical slight of hand tricks. But although she is safe and clothed and away from some of the dangerous and imposing men that threatened her in London, Kim soon finds herself dragged into Mairelon’s own dizzying drama of stolen artifacts, crazy nobles and their bizarre entanglements. Mairelon, as it turns out, is in fact a very powerful magician and toff whose name has been slandered by an accusation of stealing the Saltash Set – very powerful and unique magical artifacts – and in order to clear his name, Mairelon must recover the missing pieces and return them to their proper home. Of course, this is much easier than it sounds, especially with psudo-druids, thugs, and other covetous magicians to deal with.

In The Magician’s Ward, Kim becomes the socially-restored Mairelon’s charge and ward, and begins studying magic in earnest. Having discovered Kim not only is an invaluable asset with her street smarts and thieving skills but also has the ability to sense magic, Kim quickly becomes introduced to high society (much to her dismay) and experiences her very first season. Of course, things with Mairelon and Kim are hardly ever so quiet, as after a series of botched burglaries it quickly becomes clear that someone wants a seemingly innocuous book from Mairelon’s home. Add to this some trouble back on the streets in Kim’s old haunts, with disappearing wizards and rumors of a new power player in town, and both magician and his ward have a new, urgent mystery on their hands – which they must solve whilst trying to navigate the equally treacherous waters of the ton.

I was in the mood for some frothy, lighthearted fun, and A Matter of Magic delivered in spades. Although the two contained novels have a different tone (Mairelon the Magician being more of a comedy of errors mystery and The Magician’s Ward more of a traditional mystery with romantic undertones), both were entertaining and diverting, starring a clever, winsome duo of protagonists. Ms. Wrede’s writing style – which I fell in love with in the fifth grade thanks to Searching for Dragons and the lovely Cimorene and hilarious Mendanbar – is as wonderfully fun as I remembered, although the Magician duology reads more for an older audience than the Enchanted Forest series. Although the mysteries aren’t brain-busting whodunits, they are entertaining and well-written (bonus: Mairelon the Magician has a parlor scene! Well, it doesn’t take place in a parlor, but the culprit reveal happens in front of the entire cast, which is *always* fun). The over all plot itself puts me very much in the mind of Sherwood Smith’s Crown Duel and Court Duel (even down to the regency era and romantic sensibility of the second book in the duology), which, incidentally, was exactly what I was in the mood for.

The appeal of both of A Matter of Magic lies with its titled characters, Kim and Mairelon and their adventures together as they foil devious plots by clever deduction, street and book smarts, with a healthy smattering of magic along the way. Kim, whose thoughts serve as narration for both books, rings as a completely genuine thief-turned-magician’s apprentice, with her own keen insights to the bizarre, incomprehensible behavior of nobles that seem to have no common sense. Her thief vernacular is a little hard to get into at first, but I like that Ms. Wrede respects her readers and knows they will get it without infodumping, which only adds to the remarkable genuineness of the characters and world. The other star of the book is Mairelon, the magician himself, who isn’t as forthright as Kim (we’re never privy to his thoughts) but instead is a rather distracted, reckless but brilliantly clever young man. Mairelon’s appeal isn’t quite up to Kim’s with her admirable common sense and forthright narration, but the two make a formidable magical/sleuthing team (so it’s only natural to want them to get it past their thick skulls and realize that their perfect for each other in other ways, too).

If you’re looking for a diverting, lighthearted fantasy (with a touch of romance), A Matter of Magic is definitely for you. Definitely recommended (especially for those days when you just want an airy, escapist read).

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

A man came around the corner of the wagon and began undoing the latches at the rear. He was tall and thin and everything about him seemed to droop, from his baggy trousers to his sloping shoulders to the brim of his slouch hat. Even his mustache drooped, and as he worked he chewed absently first on one end and then the other.

The doors swung open, and Kim blinked in surprise. The entire rear end of the wagon was occupied by a tiny stage. A faded red curtain separated the back of the stage from the wagon’s interior. Kim forgot her eventual goal and slid closer, fascinated. The droopy man swung a small ladder down at the right side of the stage and latched it in place, then climbed onto the stage itself. He vanished behind the curtain, only to reappear a moment later carrying a table, which he set carefully in the middle of the stage. Then he began hanging lanterns on either side.

A crowd began to collect around the end of the wagon, drawn by the curious spectacle of something being set up in the market in complete silence. Some of the bystanders offered comments as the lanterns were hung and lit—“Waste o’ good oil, that,” and “Bit crooked, ain’t she?” The droopy man chewed on his mustache, but gave no sign that he had heard.

He finished his work and disappeared once more behind the curtain. For a long moment there was no further activity, and the small crowd murmured in disappointment. Before they could begin to drift away, there was a loud crash, and a thick cloud of white smoke enveloped the stage.

“Come one, come all!” called a ringing voice from the center of the smoke. “Prepare to be amazed and astonished by the one, the only—Mairelon the Magician!”

With the last words, the smoke dissipated. In the center of the stage stood a man. His hair was dark above a rounded face, and he had a small, neat mustache but no beard. He wore a black opera cape and a top hat, which made it difficult to assess his height; Kim judged him middling tall. His right hand held a silver-headed walking stick. “Another toff!” Kim thought with disgust. She did not for a moment believe that he was a real magician; if he were, he would never waste his time working the market. Still, she felt a twinge of uneasiness.

The man held his pose for a moment, then threw back his cape. “I am Mairelon the Magician!” he announced. “Lend me your attention and I will show you wonders. The knowledge of the East and the West is mine, and the secrets of the mysterious cults of Africa and India! Behold!”

You can read the full excerpt HERE.

Additional Thoughts: I have long been a fan of Patricia Wrede’s work, and my favorite novels to recommend are her Enchanted Forest Chronicles. These are a bit more middle grade than YA, but still delightful, really fun stories about a headstrong princess, formidable dragons, meddling wizards, and a really cool magical system. My favorite volumes are the first two, although Searching for Dragons will always have top spot in my heart:

Cimorene, the princess who refuses to be proper, meets her match in the not-quite-kingly Mendanbar. With the aid of a broken-down magic carpet and a leaky magical sword, the two tackle a series of dragon-nappings.

Those wicked wizards are at it again! This time they are draining power from the Enchanted Forest. And that does not sit well with Mendanbar the King. On the advice of the witch Morwen, Mendanbar decides to consult with Kazul, the King of Dragons. When he arrives at Kazul’s cave, he meets Princess Cimorene and learns that Kazul has been captured by those horrible wizards. Mendanbar and Cimorene will have to search for her, traveling over mountains and past man-eating giants, terrifying rock snakes, and an assortment of magic-wielders.

Also, on a nostalgic note, this was the cover that I had, and it perfectly fits the descriptions of both Cimorene (down to the braids!) and Mendanbar (with his own floppy hair). Even the faulty magic carpet with its teddy-bear design is correct. MAN, I loved this book so much!

Rating: 7 – Very Good

Mairelon the Magician: 6 – Good
The Magician’s Ward: 7 – Very Good

Reading Next: The Bards of Bone Plain by Patricia A. McKillip

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  • Kristen
    December 27, 2010 at 4:20 pm

    Thanks for the review! I’ve seen this a couple of times and have thought about getting it, but I wasn’t sure about it. Sounds like something I should read sometime when I’m in the mood for a fun book, though!

  • Emy Shin
    December 27, 2010 at 5:29 pm

    I actually read the Mairelon duology before I did Enchanted Forest Chronicles, and have to say I love Mairelon and Kim’s interactions. Definitely one of my favorite series — and I’m very tempted to buy this version as well, because the cover is gorgeous.

  • Estara
    December 28, 2010 at 12:30 pm

    These two and the Lyra books are my favourite Patricia Wrede books ever. Probably because I started reading the Dealing with Dragons series when I was an adult ^^. They were a bit too samey, read one after the other for me.

    It’s a hopeful thought that what with the problematic race erasion in The Thirteenth Child Mrs. Wrede is able to write like this, too.

  • Zahra
    July 22, 2015 at 10:56 am

    I love A Matter of Magic–unlike the Dragons books, it works for an adult reader, because of what Wrede does with language. I actually think the sf-like conceit of pretending that all that the 19th century upper-class thought about “thieves’ cant” was true makes for a great novel, and I love that Kim doesn’t fit adeptly into the world, because her class upbringing is always with her. The romance is nicely understated, too, leaving the reader to fill in the gaps and long for more.

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