Brace yourself for a terrifying ride! Schlitz’s 2013 Newbery Honor Book combines Gothic horror and Dickensian historical details to carry a dynamic cast of characters through a plot that will keep young readers biting their nails until the very last page. The characters experience grief, fear, terror, and longing, all of which are ultimately overcome by courage, love, and determination. The intermingling of magical elements such as curses and enchantments will appeal to the fan of high fantasy.
The tale is set in Victorian London, with characters struggling to make ends meet on the streets, as well as some swimming in wealth and material luxury. We begin with the Venetian puppet-master, Grisini, with his magical cart-drawn show. He travels and performs with two orphans he has taken on as his wards; Lizzie Rose, from a family of successful theater performers, and Parsefall, the tough yet fearful ragamuffin with a tortured past. The troupe is discovered by Clara, the wealthy daughter of a doctor who is immediately taken by the performance and particularly, the talented, free-spirited children. She convinces her parents to commission Grisini’s puppet show for her 12th birthday at their elaborate home in which the sorrow and despair of a past family tragedy looms heavily.
An attempted murder, a missing body, trouble with the law, a kidnapping, and a most evil curse land Lizzie Rose, Parsefall, and Clara in the home of a rich, aging witch named Cassandra who has a maleficent agenda. Grisini, the witch’s friend/foe from the past, informs her that the children hold the potential to release her from the torturous suffering caused by a magical fire opal worn. His motives, of course, are selfish as he desires the opal for himself. The children, though unrelated, overcome their obstacles due to the love and care they have for each other as siblings.
Even though the plot line is certainly suitable for the recommended grades 4 – 8, the only consideration for recommending this to young readers is the incorporation of British English which might prove difficult for some (particularly Parsefall’s dialogue).