I have to admit I picked this one up not having high expectations. I’d not really explored much of the Audible Originals program, their program where they let you select one of their exclusive Audible-only audiobooks for free every month. But hey, free is free, and I was intrigued by the cover art. I’m really glad I decided to give this one a listen, though, because it was absolutely delightful. This book only exists as an audiobook, there is no print or e-book version, but narrator Jayne Entwhistle does an excellent job bringing the story to life.
Adventurous Maeve Merritt is constantly getting in trouble at her strict boarding school in Victorian London. She dreams of traveling the world and playing cricket, instead of staying in school pursuing more feminine interests. After hitting the class bully, she is sent to clean up trash, and is surprised as anyone when she discovers a magical genie inside a can of sardines. Such a discovery can’t stay secret for long, however, and soon she has the attention of a local orphan boy, the school’s unfriendly headmistress, and perhaps worst of all, a wealthy and corrupt industrial magnate, who will resort to any means to control the genie for himself. Maeve is in over her head, but one thing she’s never been able to do is abide a bully. Her adventure takes her all across London and to far-off Persia, but in the end it might be her wits, determination, and the love of her friends, not magic, that saves the day.
This story is filled with many of the well-worn middle grade tropes we’ve come to know and love from books like Matilda and the first three Harry Potter books. Despite that, however, it manages to be fresh and interesting, and I loved rooting for Maeve as she finds her way in and out of trouble. Maeve is a refreshingly human character who is allowed to learn and grow and make mistakes. I really enjoyed reading about her relationship with her two best friends, Tommy and Alice, who were both wonderfully human in their own ways. Their interactions and affection for each other shone clearly on the page (or through my headphones, as the case may be).
I appreciate the fact that, while it retains the whimsey of the British boarding school genre, it does little to sugarcoat or romanticize Victorian England. The grim realities of imperialism, work-house conditions, and the plight of the poor in post-Industrial-Revolution Britain are ever-present and never glossed over, but also not belabored. So while I was not left with the impression that Victorian England was a particularly benevolent place, I also didn’t ever feel like I was receiving a lecture instead of enjoying a story.
This book does lean heavily on a character trope I’ve heard a lot of people complain about: that is, the rebellious tomboy who despises feminine pursuits. Most notably, sewing. Maeve complains often about her needle-working class, and the poorly knitted items she’s supposed to give the orphan boys for charity are the butt of many jokes. However I think this book dodges the trap of de-valuing feminine pursuits by also including the character of Alice, who is very feminine, excellent at needle-work, and is as loyal and wonderful a friend as Maeve could ever ask for. The book never gives the impression that sewing and needle-work are useless skills that should be ignored, only that they are not Maeve’s particular area of strength.
One thing that kind of bothered me is something of a spoiler, so I’ll try to keep it in as vague terms as possible. Early on in the book, Maeve lies to one of her friends because she thinks it is necessary. All throughout the rest of the story, this lie eats at Maeve, but she can’t figure out how to break the truth without ruining her friendship. In the end, though, she never has to come clean. The story ends with everything turning out well for the character in question without them ever finding out they were lied to. However I also feel like things are left open enough that there is ripe possibility for a sequel featuring this character as the central protagonist.
People who might like this book:
- Fans of British-style middle grades like Matilda and Harry Potter
- Those who enjoy lighthearted whimsy
- People who like stories where magic causes more problems than it fixes
People who might want to avoid this one:
- Those who prefer more serious, adult-oriented fiction
- Folks who are tired of admittedly tropey tomboy protagonists
- Mean jerks who hate fun (kidding, kidding)
- Anyone who cannot or prefers not to listen to their books in audiobook format or maybe even just doesn’t want to use Audible specifically — unfortunately, this one doesn’t exist in any other formats, which can be limiting.
2019 r/fantasy bingo squares:
- Middle grade (very likely hard-mode unless you read it in the few months it was out before Bingo and just loved it so much you want to listen to it again)
- Audiobook (not hard mode unfortunately)