Review written by Jocelyn Koehler.
For reasons of my own, I’ve been reading a lot of Regency period romances. So when I saw Kat, Incorrigible, a children’s novel set in 1803 England, I snapped it up. (Note: it was published in Britain as A Most Improper Magick). The plot borrows heavily (and amusingly) from tropes common in both Jane Austen’s work and Georgette Heyer’s romances…with a dollop of Harry Potter.
Katherine Ann Stephenson (or Kat) is the youngest child of a sweet but clueless clergyman. Her mother died giving birth to Kat, so she has been raised by her older sisters, and now by her stepmama, who is VERY proper, and who hates the idea of magic. Magic? Why, yes. Burgis has created an alternate England where a few people have magical talents. Kat’s mother was one of those people, and Kat knows that magic use is a scandal and a crime. Nevertheless, when financial circumstances force her older sister Elissa to consider marrying Sir Neville, a creepy older man (who may have murdered his first wife), Kat uses her occult talents to try to stop the engagement.
Most of the action takes place during a month-long house party at (wait for it…) Grantham Abbey. Which is totally not like Downton Abbey at all. Nope! In any case, the story moves incredibly quickly, throwing Kat from one awkward situation into another with no breath in between. Some situations are awkward socially, some are awkward magically, and some are awkward romantically. The plot is composed almost entirely of twists, making it hard to summarize, but it all works out in the end.
I went into this expecting a lighthearted, Regency era girl-meets-world romp with nods to Austen. The American-edition cover art certainly suggests that kind of book, with its sweet, cartoony figures and cute image of spellcasting (loopy tea pouring and flying biscuits and sparkles!). However, the story is really not that lighthearted. True, there are some comic scenes, and a few silly characters. But Kat’s world is actually pretty dark. First, she is frequently belittled by her family (since she’s young and tomboyish). Then she discovers her magical abilities, but she can’t share her secret with anyone she trusts. Additionally, she vicariously experiences the nasty side of historic courtship practices, in which women were essentially commodities who negotiated their own sale to the highest bidder. To top it off, she must deal with the fact that someone seems to be after her to get her mother’s magic.
I was troubled by how isolated Kat becomes throughout the book. The plot demands that virtually every character she should be able to trust (i.e., her family) is either useless or angry at her for other reasons, thus forcing her to act alone and without guidance. Further, the characters who do know about her magical abilities are downright awful, demanding sacrifices of Kat while telling her virtually nothing of magic or the society of magic users until it’s almost too late. (What, did everybody in this book belong to Slytherin? Jeez.)
(From ayvalentine: For my take on secrets as a tired plot device, read Dirty Little Secrets.)
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
There are a lot of family issues. Kat has a very up/down relationship with her sisters (loving but lately distrusting), and they are quick to judge Kat without listening to her side of the story. There is a scene at the end in which the Stephenson ladies all pull together to defeat the Big Bad, but it feels rather contrived, especially in light of how the family reacted to Kat’s actions earlier in the novel. In contrast, the Big Bad is explicitly a bad family man (he killed his mother and his first wife, and he tries to steal his brother’s inheritance).
Kat’s Regency world is ruled by, um, rules. As a female (and a child), she is supposed to follow nearly everyone’s orders. And in the magical world, it seems that she is also supposed to toe the line, although we don’t learn much about the actual workings of the magical world (nearly all the info comes from highly unreliable/biased sources). It’s clear that many of these rules are arbitrary. However, Kat continually breaks rules and violates conventions (and frequently lies). Much of the time, she does so for justifiable reasons, particularly to a modern reader. But the sheer number of times she flouts authority is very hard to believe, even in a not-quite-real world.
This book only hints at sexuality. There is an emphasis on the ideal of romantic love. Both of Kat’s older sisters fall in love in the story: Elissa moons over her forbidden love in a gothic heroine way, while the middle sister (Angeline) first rejects the man under a love spell, and then falls in love with him right after the spell is broken. Kat is free of any love interest, and seems a little too young to care. However, there is a scene in which Kat (fully aware of what she’s doing), “innocently” outs a woman for being in a compromising situation. The reaction of the other adult women is just to laugh and slyly ask that woman for details (off-screen), which I thought didn’t fit the image of the time or the tone of the story.
Abuse of Magic
One of the big “secrets” in the story is how Kat’s mother either misused or abused her powers, leading to her expulsion from the Order. Kat doesn’t know details, and the others are slow to give her information, which makes it difficult for her (and the reader) to know what the real risks are. Also, there’s some kind of separation between “witchcraft” and “magic” where witchcraft is Bad and magic is mostly Good. Yet the functional differences were so minor that it seemed like Burgis had to pretend they were different to make things hard for the characters.
I’m genuinely conflicted about whether or not to recommend this book. For the most part, it’s well written, and Kat is an interesting, likable character. While it’s not exactly a mirror to the past, it never claims to be…some elements seem like legit Regency details of life and society…and then Kat punches a woman in the face, jumps onto a highwayman’s horse, and uses magic to save the day.
However, it should be more fun than it was, and I really didn’t feel like it targeted the right age group. And as a reader, I kept getting angry at a number of characters for being selfish, untrustworthy jerks for no other reason than to give Kat even more conflicts to resolve before she got to the boss fight. In fact, one of my main problems with the book is how contrived much of the conflict is, forcing Kat into a corner over and over again. Yes, it drives the plot, but it made for a frustrating and uncomfortable read for me personally. But maybe others wouldn’t get that impression (and the book is the first in a series, so clearly it sold well enough to get that support). In the end, I’d file this under “meh.” It’s not bad, but there are better options…including actual classics such as the books by Mary Hodgson Burnett.
The book claims to be for ages 10 and up, but I’d be careful letting a 10 year old read this, if only because the story seems more relevant to a slightly older reader, and because some the elements are fairly nuanced (such as the way Regency society functions).
Kat, Incorrigible by Stephanie Burgis
Published in 2011 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
First in a series
Reviewer read a free print ARC