Friday, November 12, 2010

Magic Below Stairs by Caroline Stevermer

Frederick Lincoln is an orphan from a horrible orphanage where the boys are treated little better than slaves. But Frederick is the sort of boy who does his work and wants to learn to do it well. But when the master of the Orphanage, a nasty man named Mr. Makepeace, tells him to sort a pile of beans and peas into one and the other, and to clean the floor as well, or end up in the storeroom with no food, Frederick knows he has no chance of doing what the man wants. Still, he tries his best, and passes out while sorting the peas and beans, only to hear a strange voice that calls itself Billy Bly.

The next day, he wakes up to find that everything is done, and when the headmaster demands to know if he had help, he denies it. So the headmaster makes him the assistant of the cook, a man named Vardle, who shows him not only how to cook, but how to tie knots and sharpen knives, having been a sailor.

Frederick also finds out that Billy Bly is a Bronie, a helpful, and sometimes mischevious kitchen spirit. The two of them become somewhat friendly, and when a nobleman's servant comes to the orphanage seeking a new servant for his house, Billy Bly alters the uniform left there overnight so that it fits Frederick perfectly, and so Frederick is taken to the nobleman's house to be his new servant.

But unbeknownst to Frderick, Billy comes with him. And because his new employer will not have any supernatural creature inhabiting his home, that's a problem. He disperses Billy, but doesn't quite succeed, and when Frederick's employers move to a new home, a castle in the country, for Lady Schofield to give birth to her new child in peace, he discovers that Billy Bly is still hanging around Frederick. But in this case, it's actually a blessing that Billy Bly isn't gone, because the house is cursed, and bad things start happening, and it's up to Frederick and Billy to figure out what is really going on and save Lord and Lady Schofield from the curse. But the curse is tougher and more persistent than anyone knows, and the outcome isn't at all certain. Can Frederick save Thomas Schofield from the curse before his wife gives birth?

When I started reading this book, the name of the lord and lady characters sounded familliar to me. And then I figured out why... because they were the same characters from the series that started out with "Sorcery and Cecilia: the Enchanted Chocolate Pot" and continued in "The Grand Tour", although you would never know that unless you had read the other books. And in any event, this book stands on its own, being completely about Frederick and his problems and goals.

His points of strength are pure stubbornness and a need to do things the right way. Once he knows the right way to do things or knows he is on the right path, it is impossible to get him to stop. And it is this stubbornness that leads to his success and moving up in the world. Okay, there is some magic involved as well, but even his friendship with Billy Bly came from his determination to do things right in the first place and his unwillingness to stop or give up.

I liked this book a lot. Even if it hadn't been tied to some of my favorite YA novels, I'd still have found it interesting and engaging. Like the readers, Frederick may not be used to the circles which he will be inhabiting, but over the course of the story and the novel, they become real and familiar, and his reward at the end is quite a fitting one And his last sentiment made me smile, because it so perfectly fitted the character we had come to know during the story. This is a really wonderful book, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves fantasy set in the Victorian or Edwardian past. Highly recommended.

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