The Cabinet of Earths (HarperCollins, middle grade, 272 pages) is the debut novel of Anne Nesbet.
68 years ago, a little boy living in France was fed to the beautiful, terrible magic of the Cabinet of Earths his grandmother had built. A shimmering glass Cabinet that promises near eternal life to those who entrust their years to its glass bottles.
60 years ago, the children of a certain Paris neighborhood began to vanish. Or so it seemed. And the strange Society of Philosophical Chemistry, dedicated to combining magic with science, began to attract its clients.
In the present, the twisted genius who leads the Society hungers for control over the Cabinet of Earths. And a 12 year old girl, his distant relation, arrives unwillingly in Paris, and sees the salamander door handle of the Society's headquarters turn and look at her, flicking its little bronze tongue.
When her parents broke the news that the family was moving to Paris for a year, Maya tried to be brave (James, her cheerful little brother, didn't have to try). After all, when your mother has just come through cancer, and you are hoping she'll manage to stay alive, you want (if you are like Maya) to be a Good Sport about it, even if leaving friends and familiarity is a terrible prospect.
The salamander is the first sign that Maya's life is about to become a lot less familiar than she had ever dreamed. As she slowly uncovers the secrets of her family, and the beautiful, mysterious Cabinet of Earths, she comes to realize that her brother, so charismatic and full of force vital, is in terrible danger. And so is she.
This is no magical romp through enchanted Paris. Despite the youthful cheer of the cover, Maya's journey is a dark and rather creepy one, that builds slowly but inexorably to a final confrontation.
On the everyday level, not only does the hideous possibility of her mother's death loom large, but she's confronted with the unpleasant-ness of being the new, non-French speaking American girl at a school filled with beautiful snots. The painless adjustment of James, her little brother, charismatic and loved by all who meet him, casts her own unhappiness in an even harsher light.
Happily, Maya is befriended by a kind, intelligent, and interesting boy who also doesn't fit in (which is awfully nice for her, although perhaps a bit much, especially since he does little to further the plot). And her French improves, thanks to the diligent tutoring of Cousin Louise...who's pleasant enough, but so lacking in force vital that people truly have trouble seeing her.
The virtual invisibility of Cousin Louise is not natural, and it is, indeed, tied to the larger picture of magic gone wrong in the hands of Maya's French family. There are hard ethical and philosophical questions posed by the magic of the Cabinet, and Maya's loyalty and love for her family comes into harsh conflict with her principles of what is right. Fortunately, the reader is not left hanging too long in these suspenseful bits (the truly tenterhookish parts was short enough so that I didn't have to read the end of the book, which I appreciated).
Writing all this summarizing stuff, I'm realizing this is actually a horror story. It's atmospheric as all get out, there are terrible, nightmarish things afoot, and the fate of the lost children is truly disturbing....gripping stuff, and I wouldn't give this to a younger child who is easily haunted. That being said, it's certainly a more subtle horror than, say, the Goosebumps books, and a lot more measured in its pacing, enough so as to please those of us who do not seek out Goosebumps books, and dislike horror in general.
Other good things: I found Maya to be a very nicely real character, and Nesbet's writing made clear pictures in the mind--two things I value highly in books, which I was very pleased to find here. And it's also nice that it's a satisfactory stand-alone, though with room for a sequel.
Here's another review at The Book Aunt and an interview with Anne Nesbet at The Enchanted Inkpot.