Monday, October 29, 2012

3. Splendors and Glooms

By Laura Amy Schlitz
Candlewick, 2012
$17.99, ages 9-13, 400 pages

A girl trapped by an evil spell helps two orphans fend off a ruthless master, as a witch tries to use them all to rid herself of a curse, in this spooky novel.

Newbery Medal winner Schlitz tells the story of Clara, a lonely girl who's haunted by reminders of her siblings' deaths and is desperate to feel happy again.

One day she sees a street magician Gaspare Grisini manipulate puppets as if they were alive and she's so entranced that she convinces her father to invite Grisini to entertain for her 12th birthday.

But after her party, Clara disappears, and Grisini's apprentices, two orphans, discover that their master has a criminal past and suspect that he's kidnapped Clara.

Before police can catch Grisini, the magician disappears and the orphans, Lizzie and Parsefall, fearing they're under suspicion too, flee London and fall into an evil trap.

A dying, old woman has invited Lizzie and Parsefall to her estate, Strachan's Gyll, under the pretense that she wants to pass on her wealth to deserving orphans before her death.

Though Parsefall is suspicious of the offer, Lizzie is desperate to feel safe and cared for, and convinces him that going there is their only choice.

Little do they know, the woman is a witch and has summoned Grisini, her ancient rival, as well to help break a curse.

The witch needs to trick a child into stealing a magical opal from around her neck or the stone will burn the witch to death. Once a child steals it, that child then assumes the curse.

While the orphans stay at the estate, a mysterious marionette speaks to them in their dreams and warns them of the witch's evil plans.

But how will Lizzie and Parsefall resist the witch's spells and why is Grisini lurking nearby? Will the orphans be able to find Clara and save themselves?

Schlitz spins a spooky story of "splendors and glooms," (a phrase taken out of Shelley's famous elegy to John Keats Adonais), in which stringed puppets move by magic, and specters loom in nightmares and beyond.

The story has a wonderful Dickensian feel and echoes themes from Robert Louis Stevenson's short story, The Bottle Imp:  selling one's soul to the devil and sacrificing one's soul to save someone else.

This is a beautifully written and cleverly plotted story that leaves readers feeling as if they too overcame a spell, fought against a fiery curse and through kindness and love, resisted the advances of evil.

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