November 30, 2012 by Heidi
Title: Splendors and Glooms (US) or Fire Spell (UK) [Amazon|Goodreads]
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz [Website]
Standing: Stand alone novel.
Genre: Middle Grade, Historical, Fantasy
Published: August 28th, 2012 by Candlewick Press
Format: Hardcover; 384 pages.
Source: ARC from publisher.
Newbery Medalist Laura Amy Schlitz brings her sorcery to a Victorian Gothic thriller — an enthralling, darkly comic tale that would do Dickens proud.
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 wakes 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.
Any reader who has found themselves enraptured by the world of Charles Dickons will be happy to surround themselves with a similar beauty and grime in the aptly titled Splendors and Glooms. Laura Amy Schlitz utilizes her fantastical prose to steep us in the wonders of a Victorian child’s world. Children have the capacity to believe in anything, and they feel everything so acutely–such is the shape of the magic in this story.
Three children brought together through a set of unfortunate circumstances are bound by need. Clara, the only surviving child of a wealthy family feels incredibly alone despite her place in good society. Knowing that her parents would have rather she died than her twin brother, she feels she is not really allowed to live life when her parents are so fixated on death. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are the poor assistants to the foreign puppet master, Grisini. Lizzie Rose knew family and love at one time, and refuses to comport herself as anything but a lady of the most humble nature, certain things will turn out in the end. Parsefall is a nine-fingered thief and skilled young puppeteer who pushes away all of Lizzie Rose’s attempts to treat him as a brother, his sense of reality too acute for the feelings and responsibilities of others.
While a unique and mystifying magic drives the story of Splendors and Glooms, it is the strong characters and their relationships that make this such a memorable book. The children involved are brave, and so hopeful despite their close acquaintance with the hard realities of life and death. Grisini is precisely the type of manipulative villain one should most fear, the type who will stop at nothing to gain a better foothold in the world and can charm the right people into giving it to him. Cassandra, an old rival of Grisini, determined to hold onto her pampered life with tooth and nail can easily be marked as one of the most complex and sympathetic villains I have yet to encounter. I am in awe of Laura Ann Schlitz’s ability to make me open my heart not only to these children, but to the very woman who puts them in the greatest danger.
Splendors and Glooms brings to life the wonder and innocence to be found in a puppet show, the beauty of weightlessness, and the power of belief. Unaware of their positions as pawns in the machinations of sorcery, these three children take us through the streets of London to the English countryside. Each setting holds its dangers, but as ever, in Splendors and Glooms looks are deceiving. A perfect winter read, the cool creepiness of the story settled in the wonderland of the snow covered country manor makes it an ideal companion for chilly winter evenings.
For once I adore both the US and UK covers, and though I do prefer the title Splendors and Glooms for its nuance, the text used for Fire Spell is beautiful–I can almost hear it crackling. I find it very interesting that in a story featuring three children, we get a picture of all three only by seeing both covers together–the UK cover features Clara, the US Parsefall and Lizzie Rose.
Beautifully written, Laura Amy Schlitz will captivate readers of all ages. Splendors and Glooms is not only one of my favorite Middle Grade reads of the year, it is one of my favorite reads of the year period. Seriously friends, read this book. The twists and turns of the plot, while not always unpredictable were always filled with the power to horrify or fill my heart with warmth. It is a story woven so subtly that you hardly know how you have been drawn in until it has already taken you.
Likelihood that I’ll be back for more: Well obviously I need to read A Drowned Maiden’s Hair asap, right? This also made me really want to pick up and read my copy of Avi’s City of Orphans.
Recommended for: Lovers of Gothic and Victorian tales, particularly those who see the potential for wonder and creepiness in marionettes. Like Frances Hardinge or Cat Valente, Laura Amy Schlitz writes middle grade that has an intense depth in its themes and mature writing that will be appreciated by all ages.
Get a second opinion:
Things Mean a Lot - “In addition to being a perfect Gothic autumn read, Fire Spell is a moving story about family, grief, survivor’s guilt, and slowly letting go of the past.”
The Book Smugglers - “Splendors and Glooms is beautifully done, a very emotional, heart-warming story with a perfect ending…and I will now just sit here and wait for the awards shower it will be inevitably getting.”
Good Books and Good Wine - “The atmosphere is immersive. The characters, well drawn. Laura Amy Schlitz has absolutely impressed me with Splendors And Glooms and I am kind of hoping all my friends read it so we can discuss it.”
Random Musings of a Bibliophile - “This is an excellent selection for readers who enjoy the ghoulish, but shy away from the outright horrific.”