Magic Marks the Spot, by Caroline Carlson, was published in 2013 by Harper.
Hilary Westfield has always dreamed of being a pirate. She can tread water for thirty-seven minutes. She can tie a knot faster than a fleet of sailors. She particularly enjoys defying authority, and she already owns a rather pointy sword. There’s only one problem: The Very Nearly Honorable League of Pirates refuses to let any girl join their ranks of scourges and scallywags. Girls belong at Miss Pimm’s Finishing School for Delicate Ladies, learning to waltz, faint, and curtsy. But Hilary and her dearest friend, the gargoyle, have no use for such frivolous lessons—they are pirates! (Or very nearly.) To escape from a life of petticoats and politeness, Hilary answers a curious advertisement for a pirate crew and suddenly finds herself swept up in a seafaring adventure that may or may not involve a map with an X, a magical treasure that likely doesn’t exist, a rogue governess who insists on propriety, a crew of misfit scallywags, and the most treacherous—and unexpected—villain on the High Seas. Will Hilary find the treasure in time? Will she become a true pirate after all? And what will become of the gargoyle?
Despite the dreaded “girl defies propriety and runs away” plot trope, I really enjoyed Magic Marks the Spot. It has a tongue-in-cheek humor to it that’s quite funny (if a tad hard to swallow at times) and Carlson has a deft enough hand that I enjoyed the atmosphere of “not-quite-taking-itself-seriously” that the book displays. Sometimes those are hard to get right, but this book does it quite well.
I did find the plot a little predictable, though, and while some of the reveals may be surprising to younger readers, I doubt they would surprise older ones. I’m also disappointed at the way Hilary and Admiral Westfield’s relationship was handled—I would have liked a little more nuance and depth there rather than the ho-hum, apathetic approach we got. I doubt any girl would be able to so casually accept the things that happened as Hilary did, although maybe the tongue-in-cheek nature of the book has something to do with it.
So, even though I find the main plot trope used in this book stale and annoying, I did enjoy Magic Marks the Spot, mostly because of its humor, its cleverness (though the plot overall was predictable, there were some clever bits), and its ability to make me not care so much about the obviousness of some of the tropes used. This is a series I would like to come back to.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Miss Greyson smiled for the second time that day—the world was getting stranger and stranger by the minute—but Philomena didn’t smile back. “I’m terribly sorry,” said Philomena, “but Miss Pimm doesn’t receive visitors. You can leave Miss Westfield with me, and the porter will collect Miss Westfield’s bags.” She raised her eyebrows as the carriage driver deposited the golden traveling trunk on the doorstep. “I hope you have another pair of stockings in there.”
“I do.” Hilary met Philomena’s stare. “I have nineteen pairs, in fact. And a sword.”
Miss Greyson groaned and put her hand to her forehead.
“Excuse me?” said Philomena.