Victorian Gothic Less-Than Thriller

Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

First Look:

Love it!  Puppets are basically the theme of the book, and the giant hand and lighting (not to mention the kids’ faces) add a great creep factor.

Jacket Copy:

The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is so expert at manipulating his stringed puppets that they appear alive. Clara Wintermute, the only child of a wealthy doctor, is spellbound by Grisini’s act and invites him to entertain at her birthday party. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with caravan, puppets, and his two orphaned assistants.

Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are dazzled by the Wintermute home. Clara seems to have everything they lack — adoring parents, warmth, and plenty to eat. In fact, Clara’s life is shadowed by grief, guilt, and secrets. When Clara vanishes that night, suspicion of kidnapping falls upon the puppeteer and, by association, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall.

As they seek to puzzle out Clara’s whereabouts, Lizzie and Parse uncover Grisini’s criminal past and wake up to his evil intentions. Fleeing London, they find themselves caught in a trap set by Grisini’s ancient rival, a witch with a deadly inheritance to shed before it’s too late.

Newbery Medal winner Laura Amy Schlitz’s Victorian gothic is a rich banquet of dark comedy, scorching magic, and the brilliant and bewitching storytelling that is her trademark.

Sequel?

No, it’s a standalone.

Worth Reading?

Quality wordcraft that moves slowly is still slow; I wish it had been more consistently scary or ominous, instead of mostly just towards the end.

Notable Things:

Amazing Puppetry!  The main antagonist, Grisini, as well as his apprentice and pickpocket Parsefall, are like the Jim Hensons of their time.  It’s cool to read about, although it would be cooler to see it!

Costly Magic!  Magic in this story has a high price, which I like.  It couldn’t be free, could it?  Then everyone would do it.

Elaboration:

It’s not that Schlitz isn’t talented: she crafts sentences beautifully.  It’s not that the story setup isn’t interesting: it’s pretty compelling.  However, the way she’s chosen to tell the story is questionable, and thus I took far longer than normal to read it.  Basically, she focuses on details of everyday life, such that the story meanders far more than is wise with a novel that is meant to be scary and thrilling.  Descriptions of walking dogs and how Lizzie Rose was forced to humor their landlady’s sense of drama took up far too much space.  Slow and ominous would have been good, too, but since we saw the sorceress’ POV regularly and knew exactly what she was planning, the sense of impending doom never developed.  Then the wrap-up was entirely too happy.

As I said, Schlitz is good with words. Many sentences were beautiful, but when your writing style fights against your intended effect, it’s time to reconsider something.  Overall, my verdict is that, although it’s marketed to middle-schoolers, perhaps it’s one of those children’s books that adults enjoy much more than any child does.

Edit: It was also announced as a Newbery finalist.  I think that perhaps the Newberys go to books that adults enjoy more than kids more often than we like to admit.

Disclosure:

Borrowed.

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