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Friday, November 9, 2012

Splendors and Glooms, written by Laura Amy Schlitz. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2012. $19.00 ages 12 and up

"Lizzie Rose squeezed her eyes shut and tried to go back to sleep. Her stomach felt queasy. As the events of the night came back to her, the queasiness increased. Grisini had found her out and struck her. Parsefall had rushed to her defense. The staircase had broken, and Grisini had tumbled down and hurt his head. At the thought of Grisini bleeding on the stair treads, Lizzie Rose began to tremble."

Hurrah! I finally convinced Erin to read this wonderful book; she likes it as much as I do. Who could not? There are some stories that stick with the reader, no matter how far from the reading we get. This is just such a story for me...I will not forget its characters, its many diverse scenes, or the truly remarkable telling itself. Laura Amy Schlitz is a tremendously talented writer, and here she uses every scrap of that talent to weave a wondrous tale of Dickensian London. Quite literally, remarkable!

In the prologue we meet the witch Cassandra, whose dreams are plagued by earlier life events that center on Grisini, a young man from her past whose magic was not as strong and who has been gone from her life for almost forty years. Yet she is seeing him as he is today, and she sees children near him. If  he is still alive and her magic remains strong, there is only one thing she can do:

"What if she had seen him as he was and where he was, in London? If her dream was to be trusted, she might send for him, and he would have no choice but to come to her. She could force him to tell what he knew about the phoenix-stone."

As the story begins, we are privy to Clara's thoughts. It's her twelfth birthday and she has begged her father to invite Grisini, the puppet  master, and his assistants to come to the house and perform for her. They will have tea together. Clara and her family are wealthy, and in constant mourning for her siblings. All have died during a cholera outbreak. Wanting to make his daughter's birthday a happier one than usual, her father agrees. The troupe is invited.

Lizzie Rose and Parsefall live in abhorrent conditions, orphaned and now working endlessly for Grisini as the assistants in his puppet theatre. Their visit with Clara is pleasant, and they are awed by the Wintermute home; but, all does not end well. When Clara disappears the following day, Grisini is the suspected kidnapper. Then, Grisini disappears as well. There is no trace of either one. The two children, without any means of support, are left to fend for themselves on the mean streets of London.

When it feels as if they cannot go on and their very lives are threatened, Lizzie Rose finds a letter addressed to Grisini. Since he is nowhere to be found, she breaks the seal and later reads it. In part, it says:

"I have no one of my blood to succeed me, and the prospect of playing fairy godmother amuses me. I think I should like to enrich your two hardworking orphans. But of course, before I arrange their legacies, I must first meet the children face-to-face and make sure that I like them."

The writer is Cassandra Strachan Sagredo, and she sends clear instructions for the journey to Strachan's Ghyll. Emboldened by the invitation, and with no other obvious options, Lizzie Rose packs them up and sets them on their journey. Cassandra's motives are not so altruistic as we might think, and she is not the only one living in the castle. You remember she's a witch, right?

Complex and commanding attention, Laura Amy Schlitz leaves nothing to chance in her expert handling of the multiple narratives. She creates characters who are complex, sets scenes that switch from humorous to horrifying, and warm to chilling. I was on the edge of my seat at all times. It is a most memorable read.

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