Book talk: Have you ever seen a puppet show so convincing that the puppets seemed alive? What if they were? Gaspare Grisini is a master puppeteer with a dark secret. Everywhere he goes children love his shows, and every once in a while a child disappears. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are his orphan apprentices, and they have learned that disobeying the puppet master can have terrible consequences. But when Clara goes missing after one of their performances, they risk everything to uncover the truth behind their master's success.
Rocks my socks: Splendors and Glooms has an appealing Dickensian theme with resourceful but unlucky orphans using their wits to defy the evil master they work for. The idea of an evil puppeteer turning children into puppets has a great, classic fairy tale feel to it that I enjoyed. The three main child characters were well drawn and nuanced with complicated pasts that were slowly revealed and informed their actions and attitudes. The combination of Victorian setting, magical elements, and dark comedy isn't one commonly seen in modern juvenile fiction, so I can see why this book has received so much attention and acclaim. It's a refreshing change from the usual fare.
Rocks in my socks: Schiltz didn't play up the most appealing elements as much as I had hoped. The idea of turning children into puppets is delightfully imaginative and creepy and could have been the main idea for a book, but alas it was not the main idea of this one. It takes a long time to even reach the point where this happens, and then there's so much else going on that it's easy to forget at times. One of the things drawing attention from this plot is the puppeteer's rival, a witch on her deathbed looking to rid herself of a curse. There is a lot of time spent on this character and she's not particularly sympathetic or interesting and I doubt the intended audience for the novel will be able to relate to a mean old witch who is in constant pain and about to die but first looks to foist her curse off on some innocent children. She's a perfectly fine villain, but so much time was spent on her story, including chapters from her perspective, and I think that time could have been better spent. I generally have a fondness for witch characters and even I got sick of hearing her moan about a curse that was her own darn fault. The pacing was uneven in general and could have benefitted from cutting out some of the side plots and being shorter.
Every book its reader: Fans of fairy tales and historical settings looking for a dark story will be likely to enjoy this. It's harder to pin down a grade recommendation though. The School Library Journal puts it as low as 4th grade and with its young protagonists and lack of romantic subplot I can see why. But I'm not sure I'd be comfortable giving it to someone so young. The book is dark, disturbing, and violent. The pain of the witch is graphically described, the puppeteer is brutally tortured, the orphans are physically abused by their master and Lizzie Rose is molested by her landlord's son to name a few of the darker elements. I'd save it for 6th grade at least.
Candlewick Press has a page for the book with reviews, an excerpt, and a Q&A with the author
Splendors and Glooms was a competitor in the 2013 Battle of the Kids Books, so you can find some fun reviews and graphics for it there.
This video of traditional Victorian marionettes is absolutely delightful:
Source: ebook from public library
Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz: buy it or check it out today!