Magic Marks the Spot (The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates, book one)
By Caroline Carlson
Published 2013 by HarperCollins
Hilary Westfield wants nothing more than to be a pirate. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Not only is her father Admiral of the Royal Navy, but he hates pirates and he thinks Hilary is nothing more than a silly little girl. When she is shipped off to Miss Pimm's Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, it isn't long before Hilary finds her way to the high seas. Adventure! Magical gargoyles! Treasure! Pirates! Villainy! All these things await Hilary.
As I've said before, I'm really trying to read more middle-grade books and when I spotted this egalley I literally could not resist. I mean, come on! It sounds awesome! It reminded me a little bit of one of my favorite recent series, The Chronicles of Egg, and I was definitely eager to give it a try. I am so glad I did!
I adored this book! Really, it seems to me that it would be pretty impossible to not love this book. It has all the things one could ask for. It's got great characters, a thrilling plot, underhanded villains, great storytelling, magic, humor, and a lot of heart. Let's break it down, shall we?
The characters: from page one, I admired Hilary. She wants to be a pirate and no rejection from the VNHLP or belittlement from her father is going to stop her. She is charming and smart and brave - all admirable qualities in a young girl. It was not difficult to want to see her succeed in her piratical ambitions. And it's not just Hilary who is wonderful - the gargoyle! Oh, how I adore the gargoyle! I want him for my very own! I also loved Miss Greyson and Jasper and Charlie and even more minor characters like Oliver and Admiral Westfield are executed well. I loved reading about these characters and am so, so thrilled that there will be more adventures for them!
The plot: if you are looking for thrilling adventure, you have found it here! PIRATES! Really, what more do you have to say to a kid to get them interested in a book? Even Hilary's ordinary adventures, such as her time at Miss Pimm's, are more thrilling and entertaining than they really have any right to be. This book is fast-paced and will keep readers turning pages, eager to know what adventure is waiting in the next chapter.
The villains: oooh, the villains! They are sneaky (well, some more so than others) and underhanded - the way good old-fashioned villains are supposed to be. I had a pretty good idea who the real bad guy would turn out to be and I wasn't wrong. Though the villains here are more cut and clear than I usually like, they work perfectly in this kind of story.
The storytelling: it's hard for me to determine what is my favorite thing about this book, but the way its told is certainly in the running. The story is told through typical narrative, as well as through letters, articles, and other ephemera and I loved that choice. Epistolary novels are another of my weaknesses (right up there with novels in verse) and I think the style works exceedingly well for this story. In fact, the book opens with a series of letters between Hilary and the VNHLP and it sets the tone and introduces the characters so perfectly that I wouldn't have wanted the book to start any other way. Additionally, the book is just well-written. The writing flows nicely and the tone remains constant and it all just works beautifully.
The magic: if you need more than pirates to sell a book to kids, throw in magic and then see if you still have any that aren't scrambling for the book. Kids (and, let's face it, many adults) love magic, because don't we all wish for special powers? Carlson does something really interesting with the magic in this book - she makes it about class and power (well, a lot of magic is about power anyway, but I think you get what I'm saying). It sounds like heady stuff for a middle-grade book but it's written in a way that will completely make sense to kids.
The humor: this book is fun! It is so much fun! It is so much fun that I had a hard time not chuckling to myself while reading. I wanted this book to go on forever simply because I was having so much fun reading it. There is humor - banter and wit and cleverness and silliness and it all meshes into a lovely fun story.
The heart: perhaps one of the greatest things about this book is how heartwarming it is. This is a book with a big message - you can be whatever you want, no matter what anyone tells you. It doesn't matter if you're a girl - you can be a pirate and no one should get in the way of that. And just because you're a pirate, you don't have to be a bad guy. And just because you're a governess doesn't mean you can't have adventures, too. Really, this book wants you to know that society does not dictate who you are and you should never think otherwise.
I don't think I really have to say it, but this was pretty much a perfect book for me. Please, read it and love it and share it with every middle-grade reader you know! I promise they will thank you.
Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.