It seems to me that today’s average everyday fantasy author for kids has to walk a delicate line. You want to create an alternative history novel laden with magical elements? Fair enough. Here is the choice set before you. Nine times out of ten books of this sort, whether they’re of the steampunk variety or the more common knights + wizardry type stuff, are written for kids thirteen and up. Think about it. The King of Attolia books, Philip Reeve’s Larklight series, Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus Trilogy), and so on and such. All of these are mature books for mature readers. They deal with large themes, long complicated plots, and dark motivations. So do you skew your book older or younger? Really, when you sit down and think about it, Marie Rutkoski’s new series The Kronos Chronicles is a rare beastie. In her first installment The Cabinet of Wonders, Rutkoski opts for the younger end of the spectrum, combining just the right mix of kid fantasy within a well-planned historical setting. I’m as tired of new otherworldly series as the rest of you, but Rutkoski’s new world is crisp and smart enough to win over even the most jaded fantasy fan.
When they brought her father home with bloody bandages over his eyes, that’s when Petra Kronos got good and mad. Her father was given a remarkable commission: construct a clock for the prince himself in Prague. But instead of showering her father with gifts and praise upon its completion, the prince plucks out his eyes so as to make them his own (and prevent her dad from creating anything quite as nice again). Yet the clock is more than it seems. With the potential to control the weather itself, the Prince knows full well how powerful he could be if he just managed to put together the final piece. Now Petra is determined to steal back her father’s eyes before that happens, even if it means befriending the Roma, sneaking into the palace, helping a woman who can leak acid through her skin, and reluctantly working alongside the magician and spy John Dee. Fortunately she has her tin spider Astrophil by her side and a host of talents that even she has been unaware of until now.
One of the problems I’ve had with a lot of fantasy novels lately is just how bloody long they are. Blame Harry Potter, blame Twilight, blame whoever you like but the fact of the matter is that a lot of authors aren’t taking the hint that sometimes your novel really doesn’t have to be 300+ pages. Now let’s take a gander at The Cabinet of Wonders. Coming in at a trim 258 Rutkoski could have explained at length about everything from Petra’s mother’s death to the girl’s experiences with her in-laws while her father was away. Instead we are plopped into the story midstream and Rutkoski has a clear enough sense of the story she’s telling to fill the small background details along the way. The result is a story that moves at a quick clip but never hurries so quickly that you loose the plot’s thread or get confused about where things are going. In spite of the fact that you are reading yet another book about a motherless daughter whose doting scientific father pays her little heed, this territory is still relatively new.
I was a bit partial to the writing too. Just because the author isn’t indulging in ludicrous fripperies doesn’t mean that she hasn’t an ear for a keen description once in a while. Check out this quickie encapsulation of our heroine’s eyes. "Petra’s eyes were gray – or, to be more precise, they were silvery, like they each had been made with liquid metal anchored in a bright circle by a black center." More interesting still, Rutkoski sometimes makes the executive decision to switch point of view willy-nilly between Petra and someone near her. Interestingly enough, the person she does this with the most is the evil prince. Making the executive decision to enter the head of your villain is something we’ve been seeing a lot of in children’s literature lately (see: The Underneath by Kathi Appelt) and is always a risk. You could go too far and confuse the reader with this change of personality. Rutkoski’s transitions aren’t as smooth as they could be, but they ultimately serve the tale she’s telling and don’t go so far as to hurt it or anything.
As the Author’s Note at the end is careful to point out, the book takes place during the European Renaissance at the end of the sixteenth century in Bohemia, part of the Hapsburg Empire. In this note Ms. Rutkoski mentions that she was at first a little worried that people would take issue with the way in which she has "manhandled history". She has little to fear. Historical fiction is one thing. Pseudo-historical fantasy another altogether (though I’d be willing to debate with someone on this point). So while she may not be 100% accurate at all times I doubt anyone would demand it of her. In any case, she works in enough real details to give the book spice. I was particularly pleased with the moment when John Dee shows Petra a painting of Queen Elizabeth that shows her wearing a yellow dress covered in eyes and ears. It sounds like just another fantastical idea on the page, but the actual image (known as The Rainbow Portrait) is rather famous and well worth searching out. Note the eyes and ears that creepily appear all over her dress.
Let’s talk gypsies. Over the years I’ve shuddered each and every time I’ve seen them in a work of children’s fiction. Gypsies are like fairies or elves to most authors. You just throw them into a plot and hope that they end up kidnapping kids/telling fortunes at some point. There’s never any acknowledgment that there are real Gypsies in the world, nor any complexity to their characters. So it was that I was amazed at how careful Rutkoski was with her Gypsy (which is to say, Roma) characters. In her Author’s Note she acknowledges their past and the fact that they are "certainly real". And when she uses them in the book, it’s almost as if she’s mocking those old literary tropes. A Roma woman does indeed offer to tell Petra her future but when the girl politely refuses it’s seen as the correct action. What’s more, I loved how Neel would work Roma stories into the narrative alongside concepts like the "idea of zero". There’s a lot going on here, and it’s handled with evident care.
There isn’t exactly a lack of child-friendly fantasies out there, sure. But we’ve finally gotten to the point where the Harry Potter wannabes have slacked off a little, leaving room for other kinds of series. And as for fantasies written with the 9-12 year-olds in mind, The Cabinet of Wonders is joining books like Savvy and Out of the Wild to entertain our slightly younger readers. With enough originality to choke a nag, Rutkoski firmly establishes herself as a new author to watch. I’ll keep an eye eagerly peeled for her future books.
On shelves now.
Notes on the Cover: Slowly David Frankland is establishing his book jacket dominance. Oh, he started out innocently enough. The Penderwicks. Such a sweet little thing. No one gave it any mind. Clearly he was merely biding his time until 2008 rolled around. Now all of a sudden he’s everywhere, he’s everywhere! Look! The Penderwicks of Gardam Street. Oh my! Highway Cats! And last but by no means least, he’s done his most impressive work on The Cabinet of Wonders. I truly mean this because the tableau featured on the cover is genuinely impressive. He’s managed to show different points in the storyline without actually giving away any plot. Petra, if you look closely, actually appears twice here. What’s more, it’s clear as crystal that Frankland read the book cover to cover. Don’t believe me? Well how else do you explain the living fox silhouette, which is indeed important but doesn’t appear in the book until page 240, a mere 18 pages before the end of the book? It gets better the longer you look at it too. The clock’s pendulum is weather related. There’s a lightning bolt on the right-hand side of the page. And what about the eyeball and the glass sphere holding the hornet on the bottom of the page? Frankland my man, you may just have created my favorite cover of the year. A hat tip to you and to jacket designer Jay Colvin as well.
Steampunk Potential: Medium
- Ms. Rutkoski was at my last Kidlit Drink Night. Now I feel bad that I didn’t speak to her more at the time. That’s what I get for being a bad mingler.
She has a blog of her own, it seems. Rather lovely in its layout (though the aforementioned beautiful cover’s color scheme doesn’t hurt matters any).
I have only been to Prague myself once but I was pleased to see that the clock in this book is based on a lovely little Glockenspiel I saw there once. Here’s a shaky YouTube video of it, if you are interested.