Splendors and Glooms
by Laura Amy Schlitz
Set in Victorian England, this fantasy novel by Newbery medalist Laura Amy Schlitz (Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a medieval village) is recommended for grades 4-8, but is definitely on the darker side. Thirteen year old Lizzie Rose and eleven-ish Parsefall are two orphans “adopted” by Grisini, a sinister master puppeteer. As in marionettes. A children’s book about an eeeeevil puppeteer?! Yes, please!
Grisini and the orphans perform at a young rich girl’s birthday party and when the girl, Clara, winds up missing the next day, the trio is suspected of being behind her disappearance. When Grisini also vanishes, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are left to defend and fend for themselves; while also wishing to help find Clara. I thought the plot would be pretty straightforward, and in some respects it is. The orphans are plucky (of course) and good at heart. Grisini is evil to a Dickensian level and the rich girl who has everything is really quite lonely and sad. But then there is this whole other plot about a witch and her magic stone (which is actually a curse that is burning her alive.) Schlitz manages to merge the characters’ plots fairly seamlessly by telling the story from the alternating points of view of the witch and all three children.
I wasn’t prepared for this deftly written book’s rich bleakness. There were times that I didn’t want to get out of the car to stop listening to the audiobook (which is very well narrated) and times that I was almost uncomfortable in its gloominess. Schlitz does not shy away from the grittier details of Victorian London so oft forgotten in period pieces. She also draws unflinchingly evil characters and manages to create sympathy for them at times – a rather complex idea for a children’s fantasy book.
Of course, I had to read this book – it’s about an evil puppeteer. But I was surprised by how strong my reaction to it was. I highly recommend this book for less sensitive children. The issues of wickedness, punishment, neglect, abuse and especially death are not skirted around and if the reader is mature enough to handle those concepts, they will be rewarded with a thoughtful, rich, engrossing story.
By Jacqueline Carey
If you like books about alternate history, with a good twist of fantasy, this is a series for you. Naamah’s Blessing is the conclusion of the Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy by Jacqueline Carey. If you haven’t read the other trilogies in the same setting, you won’t be too confused, as it takes place hundreds of years after the first two trilogies. This book follows the continuing story of Moirin of the Maghuin Dhonn, where she faces the consequences of the choices she made in the first two novels of the trilogy: Naamah’s Kiss and Naamah’s Curse.
Although her novels might be a bit risque, Carey does an excellent job of exploring the idea of acceptance of who one chooses to be with, despite their calling in life. Through the ever present dangers and tests that face Moirin and Bao, her new husband, they always manage to find strength within each other and the friends they make along the way.
Carey also explores the acceptance of fate, as following the will of the “gods” in this trilogy make for a large part of the adventures that Moirin finds herself having. She manages to avert disaster at every turn, even if the cost is very high to her, physically and emotionally.
This is one of the best conclusions to a trilogy I have ever read. Carey has a knack for resolving the issues that arise in her other novels without making it seem too obvious. Parts of the plot that almost seem insignificant and humorous in the first two novels come back in this book with a vengeance.
If you like alternative history and fantasy, with a little bit of romance and adventure, than this is definitely a book for you!
Pleasant reading -
Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus has become a run away hit. If you loved it, or are looking for something else to read while floating to the top of that holds list, you might want to check out these fantastical love stories:
Nights at the Circus
by Angela Carter
A dazzling tale about a half-swan aerialiste and the American journalist who travels around the world to love her.
Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell
by Susanna Clarke
This alternative history novel about warring magicians in 19th century England was the Night Circus of 2004. It may be missing some of the romantic elements, but its Englishyness is crack for Anglophiles.
by Katherine Dunn
Love and family presented in the freakiest of freak modes, à la Tod Browning.
Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World
by Haruki Murakami
Though not dealing with circuses explicitly, it does take place in a dream world filled with unicorn skulls and the love of the protagonists has far more riding on it than just romance.
Under the Poppy
by Kathe Koja
Koja’s prose are always luscious, but she one-ups herself with this complex narrative of puppeteers in 1870s Brussels.