Thursday, November 1, 2012

Splendors and Glooms - Laura Amy Schlitz

Title: Splendors and Glooms
Author: Laura Amy Schlitz
Publisher: Candlewick Press, 2012 (Hardcover)
Length: 383 pages
Genre: Children's Fantasy
Started: October 25, 2012
Finished: October 31, 2012

From the inside cover:

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 home. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with his caravan, puppets, and 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 she vanishes that night, suspicion falls on the puppeteer.

As they seek to puzzle out Clara's whereabouts, Lizzie and Parse uncover Grisini's criminal past and wake 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.

I'd seen some hype for this book a few months back and was intrigued by the macabre leanings, especially the puppets (nothing like evil puppets for a good scary story, right?). Splendors and Glooms is definitely macabre, but not quite as sinister as I'd imagined it would be, which I suppose is good considering it is a children's book, but it definitely has a creepy edge that readers will love without being scared off. At the same time, the story is surprisingly complex with a higher reading level and vocabulary than your typical children's fare, so I would suggest a mature reader for this one.

Splendors and Glooms opens in 1860s London with Clara on the day of her 12th birthday party where she's invited Grisini to perform with his puppets as entertainment for her guests. We get some backstory on how she met Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, along with inklings that Clara's life isn't as perfect as it appears. After some insight into Lizzie Rose and Parsefall's lives with Grisini, we learn that Clara has disappeared and Grisini is suspected based on his prior background. At the same time, Grisini's old mentor, a witch named Cassandra, has a possession that is slowly killing her and the only way for her to be rid of it is if it is stolen from her by a child. The two plots intersect and the mystery begins to unravel.

I loved the Victorian atmosphere of the novel, the author did an amazing job with her research in this regard. I liked the twist with Clara's family, very appropriate without being too 'out there' in terms of suspension of disbelief. I thought there could've been a little more character development for several characters, particularly Lizzie Rose and Parsefall (they seemed flat and cliche sometimes), but I thought Clara was quite well-rounded. The ending came together a little too conveniently, I'm not sure if that was intentional or just an oversight, but it was unrealistic all the same.

Even though this is classified as a children's book, I'm not sure your average 10-year-old would get through it. It's a wonderful book with excellent writing and a great plot, but I just can't see most kids getting into it (I on the other hand loved it). If you have a mature reader who is well-versed in some of the older classics, I'm sure this would be right up their alley.

Thoughts on the cover:
I like how Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are depicted as puppets, but the giant Grisini hand above them is kind of weird, even though the image is appropriate for the content. I think it could have worked well with Clara as the puppet also, perhaps with Parsefall and Lizzie Rose working the strings, but that might be giving too much away plot-wise.

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