Splendors and Glooms, by Laura Amy Schlitz (Candlewick, August 28, 2012, middle grade)
In late 19th century London, a lonely rich girl named Clara Wintermute begs her father to let her have a puppet show for her birthday. For years, her birthday's have been full of Gothic horror--the only surviving child of a once substantial family, her grief-crazed mother carefully gives her gifts from all her dead siblings, and they spend a happy time at the mausoleum visiting them. But this year she begs for the puppets. She had stolen a glimpse of Gaspare Grisini's masterful marionette performance on the street, but even more than the show itself (remarkable though it was), it was her brief encounter with the red haired girl who was one of the trio of puppeteers that entranced her. And her father obliges.
That red-haird girl is Lizzie Rose, orphaned daughter of an actor. She and a former street urchin, a younger boy named Parsifal, have toiled for Gaspare (a cruel and miserly master) for years, making theatrical magic. He loves the puppets; she loves him like a sister. And lonely Clara wants to be their friend.
But Clara vanishes the night after her birthday performance, and suspicion falls on Gaspare (rightly so). Gaspare disappears from London, and Lizzie and Parse must fend for themselves. They have found Clara, but cannot save her--there is dark and creepy magic involved--Gaspare was much more than a master of puppets. When a letter arrives inviting them to a mysterious mansion in the north of England, they accept this somewhat dubious refuge--only to find that they are now part of an even larger story, filled with even more deadly magic. For the mansion is home to a dying witch, desperate to rid herself of a curse...and the three children are now players in an story that began long before they were born.
It is a gripping read, very nicely told indeed, I thought. I was fascinated by the characters and their situations -- there's not much Action and Adventure here (although there is some). Rather, the focus of the book is on whether the children will survive, on a day to day level, the vicissitudes of poverty (for Lizzie and Parse in the beginning), a truly dysfunctional, though wealthy life (for Clara), and then whether they will survive enchantment and life-threatening magical plots.
As an adult reader, I enjoyed it. I appreciated the rich characterization of the three children, the details of the historical setting, the descriptions of the marionettes, and the spooky old house full of ancient magic. The Villain is Villainous, Lizzie Rose in particular is heroic, and there is lots of poignant back story to make it all nicely three dimensional. So it's one I'd recommend to adult readers of children's historical fantasy with no hestitation.
However, I do wonder about its child reader appeal --are there many young readers of darkly magical historical fiction that isn't steampunkish? If you know such a reader, give them this one.
The UK title of this one is Fire Spell, and that's the cover on the right. I think it has more young reader appeal, because it is much prettier and promises more magic.
Splendors and Glooms is definitely on the upper end of the middle grade age range, because of the manner of its telling--it's a book that takes reading, rather than light zipping. What happens to Clara is rather disturbing, but not made horrible by writerly twisting of psychological screws, so that shouldn't be a problem (not like The Toymaker, by Jeremy de Quidt (my review), which has some similarities and which bothered the pants off me).