It's 1803. 12-year-old Kat Stephenson has chopped off her hair, put on boy's clothing and is running away from home to save her family's fortune. Her eldest sister, Elissa, drags her back before she even gets to the bottom of the garden.
The Stephenson family stands on the verge of ruin. Eldest son, Charles, has gambled away the family's fortune and does little but sit in his room since being sent down from Oxford University for bad behaviour. There is little prospect of Mr Stephenson, a respectable vicar, of restoring the family's position as his own reputation was damaged by the fact that his first wife - Kat's mother - was a notorious and flagrant witch.
Kat's step-mother has a solution - marry Elissa off to Sir Neville Collingwood, one of the wealthiest men in England. Unfortunately Sir Neville is 20 years older than Elissa and has an unsavoury reputation of his own, thanks to the mysterious death of his first wife.
Kat and her middle sister, Angeline, will do anything to stop the wedding from happening and both are prepared to use an inheritance from their mother to do it - magic. As Kat sets about trying to save her family, she learns more about her real mother's magical heritage and in particular an ancient and secretive magical Order that seeks to claim her for her own.
Stephanie Burgis's debut novel is a charming mix of adventure, highwaymen, magic and spirited heroines - a mix of Diana Wynn Jones and Jane Austen. Kat is a wonderful character - smart, spirited, determined and resolute - she wants the best for her family and will do anything to save them. Her growing discovery of her magical powers and the truth about her mother is well depicted while her encounters with certain members of the Order never quite go the way you expect.
Particularly good is the portrayal of Kat's relationship with her sisters. As the youngest, Kat feels excluded from serious conversations and the three of them constantly bicker and squabble, there's a real sense of love and devotion between them all as well as the exasperation. Although Kat's stepmother comes close to cliché, with her sniffy attitude to Kat's real mother, Burgis keeps her believable and fans of Jane Austen will recognise the type.
All in all, it's a sparkling fun read with a great set-up for the sequel, which I will definitely be reading.