Magic Below Stairs, by Caroline Stevermer (June 10, 2010, Dial, middle grade, 208 pages)
Life at the orphanage could have been worse for young Fredrick. True, the master of the place couldn't stand him, but at least the cook was fond of him. And then came the night that Billy Bly, a Brownie took such a liking to him that the course of Fredrick's life changed dramatically, and he found himself plucked from amongst his fellow orphans to serve in Lord Schofield's household. True, he's now on the lower rungs of the below-stairs hierarchy, but still, it's many steps up from the orphanage. And Billy Bly has come with him....
As Frederick learns the new duties required of him, he begins to attract Lord Schofield's attention. The lord is a magician, and there is something about the quality of Fredrick's work (his cravat tying in particular) that intrigues him mightily--it seems that there is more to Frederick than meets the eye. And when the household relocates to a cursed country residence, Frederick finds himself drawn into the world of magic. He and Billy find themselves up against a vicious curse, and unless they can stop it, all that Lord Schofield and his young wife hold dear might be lost....
This is a lovely book, reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones in its delightfully light and brisk writing (although it has more of a linear plot to it than much DWJ--I wasn't confused once). The magical adventure isn't all that harrowing (just enough so to add suspense, and give Frederick something to work against). Instead, it's the fun and detailed and utterly enjoyable story of Frederick's journey that makes the book sing. The supporting characters are great as well-- Bess, the servant girl who takes him under her wing, is a loyal and brave friend (and she gets quite a bit of screen time, adding to the book's appeal to girls), and Billy Bly, Lord Schofield, and all the rest of the manage added to my enjoyment as well.
People looking for fantasy with lots of action-packed build-up to the final confrontation, filled with whackings and plottings and escapes etc, might be disappointed. And I do think that Stevermer might have given us a few more pages of tension here. Goodness knows I feel that there is a surfeit of child-against-dark-lord-of-evil books, so this made for a refreshing change, but I wanted just a bit more of the dangerous part.
That being said, people looking for really good stories, really well told, in which character is central but magic is important, will probably enjoy it lots, just as I did (lots).
This is a companion book to the series written by Stevermer with Patricia Wrede--Sorcery and Cecilia, The Grand Tour, and The Mislaid Magician. Those who have read those books will enjoy meeting Lord Schofield and his wife Kate again, but Magic Below Stairs is completely stand-alonish. Which I know, because I haven't read any of the others. They are so going on my 48 Hour Reading Challenge Book Pile.
(disclaimer: my ARC of Magic Below Stairs was gratefully received/snatched from the publisher at ALA Midwinter)