A burning witch, a girl celebrating her birthday, a master puppeteer and his two orphaned assistants, and a dark city half-drowned in fog animate Laura Amy Schlitz’s lushly written Victorian gothic tale, Splendors and Glooms.

It’s Clara Wintermute’s 12th birthday, and the Phenomenal Professor Grisini and his Venetian Fantoccini (puppets) perform at the Wintermute mansion. Later that evening, Clara disappears, and Grisini, “with his foreignness and his flamboyance,” is the prime suspect. His assistants, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, come to realize that Grisini is not just a puppeteer but an evil magician who has kidnapped Clara.

Until now, Lizzie rose had thought that “magic spells—and evil magicians—They’re only in plays.” But she and Parsefall discover Clara’s horrible fate and soon find themselves en route to Venice, where the stories of Grisini, the children and the witch—Cassandra Sagredo—converge in a magical castle, complete with spells to keep the children from running away.

A challenging read for its intended middle-grade audience, the novel is expertly plotted and elegantly written, a dramatic Dickensian story of good and evil, the odd machinations of fate and the ever-present dripping fog of London. Schlitz animates her characters as adeptly as Grisini does his puppets, and readers may well notice that the fantoccini are not the only things manipulated by strings in this story: Spells, enchantments, desires, secrets and power pull strings of their own, as do—importantly for the fates of Parsefall, Lizzie Rose and Clara—loyalty and love.

Schlitz, author of the 2008 Newbery Medal-winning Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From A Medieval Village, again demonstrates her storytelling prowess and love of the grand tale. Besides the rich language, setting and plot, Splendors and Glooms features an utterly delicious story that weaves its spell through the fortunes of innocent and not-so-innocent children, the cadaverous puppet master, a dying witch eager for revenge and dramatic action in a castle tower that will have readers as entranced as Grisini’s audiences.

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