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Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust Trilogy Debuts with La Belle Sauvage

First, a checklist:

Daemons and more daemons? Check.
Appealing child protagonist? Check.
Experimental theology? Check.
Raging maniacal perverted genius on a your character’s trail? Check.
Nappies? Uh…nappies?

I’ll explain, but first:

Seventeen years ago, British writer Philip Pullman made a big splash with his fantasy novel The Golden Compass. Set in an alternate version of Oxford, England, it featured an endearing (Shall I say “spunky?” Perhaps I shall…) girl protagonist named Lyra Bevacqua who navigates a quasi-steampunk world with an armored polar bear for a companion, bearing a magical instrument called an alethiometer (the “compass” in the title), with mysterious parents who are either evil or terribly important or both, on a quest to save children from being permanently separated from their animal familiars, which in this world are called daemons. It’s all quite fantastic stuff. Two sequels followed with new adventures and new strange worlds and angels and witches and character arcs gone haywire. Fun reading for young and old alike.

But you know all this already, of course. And if you don’t, I suggest reading The Golden Compass before tackling Pullman’s latest.

Lyra is at the center of La Belle Sauvage as well. Though she’s just a little baby, she has a mysterious pull on all sorts of characters, including an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm Polstead, who finds the infant, temporarily being housed by a cloister of nuns, to be just the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. So we know right away that the target demographic for this book isn’t your standard 8-12 middle grade reader.

While the pace eventually picks up in the second half of the 400+ page novel, much of the first part consists of Malcolm helping the nuns at the cloister, thinking about who Lyra is, planning to fix up his boat (La Belle Sauvage, same as the book’s title), and tending to his job as a helper at his parents’ pub near the river Thames. Malcolm is one of those characters with so few character flaws that he seems even unlikelier than the assortment of daemons that populate the story. Actually, in real life it’s not unusual to come across a child devoted to helping others and doting on a baby, but in the world of fiction he’s a bit of an anomaly.

Pullman takes his sweet time showing how wonderful Malcolm is, and establishing his emotional ties to the river. He slowly adds elements of tension: a stranger with a vicious daemon, a repressive religious organization that takes over his school and turns kids into snitches, a number of messed-up adults who are apparently also interested in Lyra, and a scholar who turns Malcolm into a spy.

At this point, fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

But all these dangerous elements take a back seat to the real challenge facing Malcolm, and indeed all folk in alt-Oxford and alt-London: a massive, supernatural flood of Biblical proportions. Malcolm and a fellow pub employee, 16-year-old Alice, escape with baby Lyra on La Belle Sauvage and fight not just for their lives on the raging flood, but also how to keep the baby happy—I kid you not. Finding fresh nappies*, baby formula, and a fire to heat the formula to the right temperature become just as important as securing food and a safe place to hide from the aforementioned maniacal evil person, who also wants Lyra (natch) and has a vicious hyena with a damaged leg for a daemon. As we eventually find out, he is also in possession of the only alethiometer known to be missing in this alt-world, which Malcolm eventually takes from him. (I assume the importance of this will be revealed in the next book in the series.)

The flood is a mind-boggler, launching Malcolm and Alice on a journey into strangeness that reminds me a bit of the Odyssey: they meet (and barely escape from) a witch with magical breasts with which to feed Lyra; find temporary shelter in a place that appears to be inhabited by people who can be seen but can’t see them; and finally get help from a friendly Thames river giant to escape from the faery world that has them trapped.

In between the nappies and baby feeding and barely staying alive (experiences that all new parents experience, no doubt), they defeat the evil person, but it’s not all buttercups and daisies. At the very end they barely escape with their lives when attacked by a ship from the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the real force of evil, who have been tracking them all this time. This tale doesn’t have much of a denouement at all: their rescuer, Lord Asriel, plucks them out of the flood waters just as La Belle Sauvage crumbles like a soggy box of matchsticks. But Asriel has places to go and things to do—no time for nappies, he—so he basically drops all three kids off at one of Oxford’s colleges and, well, that’s all folks.

There you have it. Can’t hardly call it a book for kids, especially when Malcolm at one point discovers he has the hots for the older Alice. Besides, Pullman is a very involved narrator who jumps around a lot and tells the story his own damn way. Kind of like your favorite uncle who’d come over for dinner, and everyone is waiting for him to tell a humdinger of tale, but he doesn’t want to tell it over dinner, and then he has to have his drinky-poo, and then he settles into your father’s favorite easy chair, and props his feet up, and scratches the dog behind the ears, and then asks to have his drinky-poo refreshed, and then has to use the water closet, and then finally he settles back in the chair and the dog circles around three times widdershins on the floor at his feet and he finally gets into the real story.

Or something like that.

* “nappies” is Brit for diapers, not things with which to wipe one’s mouth.

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Count me among those impressed when children’s book author Gregory Maguire turned the classic Wizard of Oz on its head, imbuing this dreamlike fantasy with adult humor, flipping the script on the Wicked Witch of the East, and making Dorothy a mere bit player in a story loaded with contemporary issues such as racism and anti-intellectualism. It was fascinating to me how he cleverly took the main events in Baum’s story and reconfigured them into a post-modern narrative. That Wicked was turned into a highly successful musical underscores the irony that its popularity was due to the popularity of the original story.

Maguire has gone on to write other contemporary takes on fairy tales (still a literary trend, for how long now?), and classic children’s stories (Lost, Hiddensee). In After Alice (HarperCollins, 2015, 273 pp.) he takes on another legendary classic, but to call Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a children’s story is like calling the Bible an adventure story. There’s so much more to Alice than meets the reading eye. Lewis Carroll was not your garden-variety fiction writer. He packed so many meanings into his two Alice stories, much of it clever wordplay with mathematical overtones but much of it also comments on social morés and political figures, that it took an annotated version of his fantasies to unpack it all. The original Alice is a continual delight for multiple generations of readers, many if not most of whom are adults. It doesn’t have much of a story arc—basically, it’s Alice wandering around and innocently encountering absurd situations and characters—and as such is relentlessly contemporary. One might say, even post-modern.

Given all this, could Mr. Maguire create an alternative Alice to match his Wicked? I must admit, I had my doubts, but I was curiousier and curiouser as I set out to read it.

First off, the tale isn’t about Alice at all, who is relegated to the Dorothy role—distant, mythical, untouchable. It’s about her friend Ada, who falls down the same rabbit hole that Alice did, and met with many of the same characters—the talking flowers, the White Knight, the Cheshire Cat, etc. Maguire wisely devotes an entire chapter to the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse, one of my favorite episodes of the original Wonderland, but many of the other characters are given somewhat short shrift.

That’s because fully half the story isn’t about Ada at all, but Alice’s older sister Lydia, who isn’t in Wonderland but exists in a kind of Jane Eyre-ish domestic squabblefest involving overwrought encounters with Ada’s anxious governess, a young American man who disappointingly provides no romantic interest, and—most absurdly of all—Charles Darwin. Yes, that Charles Darwin. But Darwin is but a shadow, and the aforementioned young American is both his assistant and a guardian to a young freed American slave with the unlikely name Siam. (Yes, Siam. Get it?) All very Maguire-like.

Lydia’s above-ground narrative serves as counterpoint to Ada’s underground one. It ripples with the ridiculousness of overly polite Victorian English social maneuvering. But as a story it literally goes nowhere. Lydia shows no character development; at least Ada, who finally succeeds in both maneuvering herself and her friend out of Wonderland, does. While I found some of the Lydia narrative to be amusing, it was like eating a teacake without any tea, so to speak.

One could argue that this parallel narrative is perfectly fitting with Maguire’s post-modern take on things, but I’m afraid that in Lewis Carroll he has met his match. For example, he really tried to add a bit of ominousness with references to Persephone and Dante’s Inferno, but Carroll’s own original characters carried far more dark weight without need of any literary references. The Queen of Hearts in Carroll is terrifying, even when Alice finally realizes she and her cohorts are a mere deck of cards. In Maguire, the Queen is but a toothless noise in the background.

That’s not to say this is a bad story; Maguire’s chameleon-like stylings make it a worthwhile read, and his effort deserves credit for its audaciousness. But it doesn’t quite measure up, and measuring up to a masterpiece is a rabbit hole I’d rather not fling myself down.

Next time: we take in another tale set in Oxford, England, which is also a bit…different.

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a review of Dormia, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski. Houghton Mifflin, 2009

Preamble: the usual Spoiler Alert. I don’t reveal how the story ends here, but you won’t have a hard time guessing if you read the following review.

Young Alfonso has a problem: when he sleeps, his sleeping self does amazing things that he’d never be able to do when awake. At the story’s beginning, for instance, he wakes up to discover that he has climbed a very tall tree, with no memory of how or why he got there.

Sleepwalking is quite real, of course. I can attest to that: though not a sleepwalker myself, for a short time a friend of mine stayed in my family’s house when we were both teenagers. My friend woke up one morning to discover that, in his sleep, he’d climbed through a window, out onto the roof—three stories above ground. Needless to say, he no longer slept in the top floor of our house after that!

This story employs sleepwalking and a similar condition, waking sleep or “hypnogogia,” to full effect. Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski flip them from “disorders” into superpowers in their long (500+ pages) middle grade story about a boy who discovers that he is the Great Sleeper, and it is his destiny to return to a land called Dormia, set somewhere in the Ural Mountains, where he is to return a magical plant called the Dormian Bloom. Here, he learns, his ancestors have lived in secret for hundreds of years, struggling to survive against attacks by a hostile tribe, the Dragoonyans, and where only the Bloom, once planted in the ground, can protect the survivors. His uncle Hill whisks him off on a journey from Minnesota to some imaginary places, accompanied by quirky characters, until they finally arrive in the Urals. From there, the battle against the dreaded Dragoonyans takes shape.

I was definitely intrigued by the story’s premise. To their credit, the authors use super sleepwalking as both a way to build up excitement and a way to inject humor into the story. That’s because Alfonso isn’t the only one with sleeping powers—it turns out that the entire population of Somnos, Dormia’s last remaining city, also routinely falls asleep to perform certain tasks; for example, the sled driver who transports Alfonso around does so while snoring. The authors don’t overuse this technique, either, and they have great comic timing with some of the secondary characters.

That said, the novel wasn’t without some…issues. At times it strained my credulity, as its setting is both within the real world (the Bering Sea; the Urals) and in imaginary places along the way reachable only by boat. There were times when I simply couldn’t connect the dots on any kind of map in my mind. This wasn’t a terrible problem, just a distraction.

Some characters didn’t seem too well thought out. I’m thinking of a girl named Resuza, not a Dormian but a resident of a nearby remote city, who accompanies Alfonso for a while before disappearing with a mathematical clue. The narrator says that she’s dead, though I figured she’d turn up later, and sure enough she did—as a traitor. And then she claims she really wasn’t a traitor, and Alfonso believes her because…maybe he has a crush on her? It’s unclear.

Resuza’s puzzling behavior is connected to the unbelievable—and complicated—way that Alfonso discovers the secret way into Dormia. It has to do with a giant raven’s nest, and a huge root with a square hole in it (square root, get it?), and a watch with lines engraved on it that represent topographical lines on a map, and a metal egg that has to be turned in such a way that only someone like Alfonso with special hypnogogic powers can figure out how to line up that triggers the secret Dormian gate to open. What the giant raven had to do with any of this is never explained, but we do get to see Alfonso attacked and wounded by the monster—and then, in the ensuing action the wound disappears as though it never happened. It would make sense as a hallucination, but not as part of a plotline.

Finally, Alfonso makes it into Somnos just in time for it to be invaded. The authors chose to hop around different battle scenes rather than just sticking with Alfonso, and I found them to be unnecessarily long and confusing. The narrative tone throughout the entire novel is one that would appeal to readers who like tough guys, and Alfonso’s uncle Hill embodies that spirit as he wades into the fray with his .45 pistol and ancient aviator jacket. The tone is old-fashioned, but with a more modern narrative style. As an adult I found it tiresome at times, but I can imagine a 12-year-old really enjoying it.

The battles drag on (I’ve never liked long battle scenes, even in Harry Potter), some of it happening inside the huge, old, dying tree the Bloom will replace. Carnage ensues. Characters get killed, both “bad guys” and sympathetic “good guys.” The authors present cliffhanger after cliffhanger, and I kept thinking all was lost, until…well, you’ll just have to read it to find out, won’t you?

In sum: I give this one thumb up. After all, any story meant for preadolescents that lasts over 500 pages, and which I actually finish, has something going for it.

Postscript: I read this unaware that Dormia has two sequels to it now, though it hardly surprises me. I’m not inclined to read sequels, but make exceptions for stories that are…exceptional. Like the sequels to The Magic Compass, for instance. Speaking of which, look for my review of Philip Pullman’s first installment in his new Book of Dust series, La Belle Sauvage. Coming soon!

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As a Baby Boomer coming of age in the 70s, I held Kurt Vonnegut dear to my heart. Here was a sci fi writer who bravely broke out of the genre with his lauded novel Slaughterhouse Five, yet also lent his considerable wit and knack for pithy prose to some of the most entertaining sci fi novels I’ve ever read. I held him in such esteem that I created an imaginary baseball team whose player names were all taken from Vonnegut novels.

One Vonnegut concept that particularly intrigued me was Ice-9, an apocalyptic substance that brings about (spoiler alert!) the end of the world in his classic novel Cat’s Cradle. Turns out that Kurt got the idea for Ice-9 at least partly from his brother Bernard, a scientist who worked for General Electric back in the 50s when the company sponsored research into cloud seeding to make rain. Kurt also worked for GE as a writer, and it was this confluence of science, growing political repression, and Kurt’s own wacked-out mind that gave us the writer who penned The Sirens of Titan, Player Piano, and other tales in addition to the ones already mentioned above.

The Brothers Vonnegut, by Ginger Strand (Farrar, Strauss & Gireaux, 2015), gives us a double-barreled biography of the brothers, following both Bernard’s research at GE as well as Kurt’s struggles as a writer before finally breaking into print. She also describes the intersection of weather science and military aspirations to use weather as a weapon as war, at a time when our nation had only recently entered the nuclear age and its attendant Cold War. It was paradoxically a time of great, foolish faith in Scientific Progress, and destructive paranoia as artists, political figures, and company workers alike were blacklisted by anti-communist fanatics.

The cloud seeders fit both of these paradigms. The popular press, egged on in no small part by writers such as Vonnegut, proclaimed a new era in weather control—no more droughts or catastrophic floods, and even dangerous hurricanes would soon be able to be deflected into a harmless course. Ironically, they lauded the possibility of melting the earth’s icecaps as a way to increase global warming, thus improving agricultural production! (Hopefully, these propagandists aren’t still alive and working for Big Oil.) Strand captures all these events and personalities with style and verve; you don’t have to be a Vonnegut fan to enjoy reading it.

Just as I finished this book, I stumbled on a few articles on a new scientific breakthrough that seemed to come out of a Vonnegut novel itself: the first creations of something called a Time Crystal. This is a crystal that not only oscillates in space, it oscillates in time as well, going through a series of reconfigurations that repeat themselves. No, you can’t put one on a pendant and wear it while balancing your aura—the one I read about consisted of a small number of ytterbium ions, all with “entangled electron spins.” Which means we’re entering the weird world of Quantum physics here. Still, you gotta admit: “Time Crystal” has that swag about it, and who’s to say the Enterprise won’t have them embedded in dilithium in the future? I bet if Vonnegut were alive to today, he might well find a way to put a Time Crystal into a hilarious novel about the end of the world.

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I’ll say one thing for Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making (Square Fish, 2011): given a choice of paths, she will always take the non-sequitur. Thus her spirited, often charming, and thoroughly whimsical fantasy, about a girl named September (but looks suspiciously like Carroll’s Alice) who gets transported to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a Leopard, is that and a thousand threads more. About halfway through the book I decided to stop trying to keep track of each character and fairy object and what they might portend for her, and let the picaresque play out while I sampled Valente’s sometimes overly wrought, often tongue-in-cheek, exasperatingly yet delightfully nonsensical style that could only exist in an adult who has permanently mind-melded with her bookish inner child.

Speaking of books, I found this one in the Young Teen section of my local library, but that’s a wildly off-target notion. The language in this book is Not Teen Language, at least as conceived by the Industry (cough cough). Why, it has an adult narrator, and it’s not even first person present tense! It uses words like “velocipedes” and “gaol”—now that’s so British it’s not even funny! Okay for young adults, but then the main character hasn’t cracked 13 yet, so what’s with that? Didn’t Valente ever hear about the “MC should be at least two years older” rule for young readers?

Ah, but this book is a different kettle of spriggans. It’s too playfully fey for most Potter readers, but those fantasy consumers—mostly girls, I expect—who take delight in Valente’s hilarious mockup of Victorian fairy stories will be well acquainted with this sort of thing. You know, Capitalizing every Noun as though they were German. Anthropomorphizing EVERYthing, whether a key or a lamp. Having a conversation with Death, who turns out to be quite small and dear, really. And so on. If it’s your cup of tea, stay for the crumpets and discuss amongst your friends. One of my favorite passages for the tea set:

She [September] certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

After much twisting and turning, Valente does pull off a bit of a miracle, rescuing the story from a mid-story sag (I confess I put it down for several weeks, though that may have been because I, like so many unfortunates in the New World, got caught up following the events of an election Fairy Tale far darker than this book) by putting September through beautiful transformations and dangers that had me spellbound, at least for a while. Here’s from her journey aboard her makeshift raft on the Perverse and Perilous Sea:

September could see it. She did not know what she saw. That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator. She knew only that a red light glowed and went dark, glowed and went dark. In the shrieking whirl of the storms, she clung to her copper wrench and steered toward the light. Rain slashed at her face. Her skin had long ago gone numb and half blue. Everything ached from wrestling the raft to stay on course. Gleam bobbed and floated up ahead, valiantly trying to show the way, but the storm air was so awfully dark and thick. Lightning turned the world white—when she could see again, September looked up and glimpsed huge holes tearing open in her orange dress. A whip of wind lashed out and finished the job: the dress ripped along the sleeves and shot off into the dark. The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are.

So the narrator, in spite of her overly chatty excursions and silly observations, finally gets down to business. The end is most satisfying, with a major character twist that I shan’t tell you because that would be ever so dastardly of me to present such a spoiler to those who haven’t read the book but are now inclined to do so because of this review. (Don’t forget, this is but the first in an entire series—a series, mind you!—of Fairyland adventures by Ms. Valente).

But what I take mostly take away from this amusing story is its wry humor. It’s quirky, tableau-like presentation reminds me somewhat of the movie Moonrise Kingdom—or even The Big Lebowski—in a pseudo-Victorian environment, of course. It’s all cardboard cutouts and snuggly dreams and funny diversions, but in the end it has heart, and that’s what really matters.

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Time Travel is a concept that has served many literary needs: a protagonist’s hopes and desires, what-if scenarios for historical events, and philosophical puzzles and paradoxes, to name a few. It’s a trope with multiple subtropes, and typically involves a futuristic machine and a scientist out to change an event in the past or prevent one in the future. TV shows from The Twilight Zone in the 60s to the current Timeless on NBC have put time travel front and center. Movie franchises have been built around it (Terminator, Back to the Future). Every sci fi writer alive today probably has a dozen or more story concepts based on time travel stuffed into a drawer.

One of Time Travel’s subtropes is what I call Magic Time Gone Wrong. Magic Time, for those who know their faerie myths, is what sets apart the magical world from ours. Whereas our time is linear, Magic Time is circular. All magic spells rely on this fact; a circle drawn in a spell is a graphic manifestation of the time’s circle. A circle has no beginning or end, thus creating a mental form of the infinite. In its most obvious manifestation, Magic Time brings us back to the elemental cycles and rhythms of the seasons, the rising and setting of the sun and moon. In linear time, birth is the beginning and death the end; in Magic Time, the two cannot be separated.

Time Travel stories that make use of Magic Time are invariably much less geared toward sci fi. Futuristic machines and evil scientists are often absent altogether, for the engine that drives the loop often can only be described in mysterious ways. These stories are rarely about historical events, but personal karma, in which the main character invariably must find their way out of the time loop that has them mercilessly trapped.

The most well-known example of this story is the engaging and popular movie Groundhog Day, starring Bill Murray as a weatherman seemingly doomed to repeat one day for the rest of his life (so popular has this movie become over time—heh heh—that “groundhog day” has entered the common vernacular to mean something happening to someone over and over again, usually with distressing consequences). Murray’s character Phil the Weatherman cannot hop into a machine and travel out of the loop; he has to feel his way out. He must undergo personal growth before he can be released from Magic Time.

Among many books for children that employ time travel, Dorian Cirrone’s recently published middle grade novel The First Last Day also relies on a time loop to provide her main character’s obstacle that doubles as a vehicle for self-discovery. Instead of a weatherman, Haleigh Adams is an eleven-year-old girl who, without realizing it, paints a picture that magically makes her live out her last day of a beach vacation over and over again. Like Phil, she has no technological way out. Her only hope is to find the instructions to the box of paints that mysteriously showed up in her backpack. Ultimately she succeeds only by perserverance, and by learning to trust her best friend, a boy she might have a crush on. By repeatedly going over the same events over and over again, she tries in subtle ways to alter reality, but nothing works until she makes a connection with her friend’s grandmother that helps her unpaint the painting and consciously choose to undue her wish for the last day of vacation to never end.

Though The First Last Day tracks Groundhog Day very closely, the main characters are quite different. Phil the Weatherman is a blasé, arrogant fool who grows so despondent he tries to commit suicide to escape the loop, only to find himself waking up yet again to the same song (“I Got You Babe”) on his clock radio. Haleigh is a bright, creative preteen who has self-image problems but otherwise is the kind of person you’d like to know. Unlike Haleigh, Phil doesn’t have a magic paintbox—his time loop ends just as mysteriously as it begins, but only after he discovers the power of love. Haleigh’s journey isn’t nearly so harrowing, but it does include a lesson in the power of letting go and accepting death. While one story is for adults and the other for grade school readers, each treats Magic Time as the power that drives personal change.

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Thoughts on The Cavendish Home for Boys and Girls


If you’re a kid and love to feel squeamish about icky bugs, stinky messes, spooky dangerous houses, and evil magic, this first-time novel by Claire Legrand will be right up your creepy alley. Her main character Victoria, a 12-year-old perfectionist with a serious obsessive streak, has to survive a battle of fearful wits with a deranged witch who, unbeknownst to the clueless townsfolk where she lives, has indulged her sick desire to control people and kidnap their children from right under their noses. Along the way she grows close to her outsider friend Lawrence, nicknamed “Skunk” for a premature lock of gray hair atop his head. Appropriately weird cartoonish illustrations heighten the absurdity of it all.

What pulled me into the story is the main character, Victoria. She’s the kind of girl many of us would have hated: getting a B grade is enough to turn her into a pouting maniac, and she can’t help turning her nose up at everyone in her school. But Legrand does a great job of humorously showing her inner emotions and thought processes. Victoria is mirrored by her antagonist, the fearsome Mrs. Cavendish, in a way that feels believable and enhances the depth of her character.

[semi-spoiler in paragraph ahead]

Mrs. Cavendish is completely over the top, a contemporary take on the witch in Hansel and Gretel. She’s beautiful yet ugly, compelling yet repulsive, and enslaved by her own warped wants. Where she gets her powers isn’t explained, but like many stories for children (admittedly, children mature enough to handle some pretty gruesome revelations) such explanations hardly matter. She is an eternal archetype, and while Victoria prevails here, the book’s ending leaves open Mrs. Cavendish’s return.

The critical questions I have for novels of this ilk are:

1) How well does the author make the transition from “normal” reality to that of the fantasy?

To her credit, Legrand doesn’t immediately plunge us into the world of the weird. She spends plenty of time establishing Victoria’s character, and setting the stage for the bizarre events to follow by more subtle clues: An icy coldness. Nasty classmates. And then finally, on page 35, she bumps into Mr. Alice (rhymes with “Malice”), the Home’s evil gardener, standing by the front gate of the property. When Mr. Alice says he “knows” Victoria, and that Mrs. Cavendish “makes a point of knowing all the children in the area,” you know you’re in for a scary ride.

2) Does the pace slacken in the middle?

I have to confess that, at times, the pace does slow down after she’s been trapped inside the home; especially when she re-experiences a number of ways the house changes shape a là Harry Potter, the story gets a bit repetitive. By the end, however, I was all in.

3) Does the author manage to put an interesting spin on tropes, such that they feel fresh rather than recycled?

Fantasy novels rely on tropes to set an emotional stage, and this one’s no different. This is the one area where Legrand falls a bit short. She especially overplays the “creepy smile” card, which is closely tied to the “everything’s perfect so shut up” card. Mrs. Cavendish herself is a bit of a stock villainess, and Victoria’s sidekick Lawrence is predictably sidekickish. The Home itself, while not a home to orphans, feels very Dickensian.

Nevertheless, Victoria is refreshingly funny and foible-enhanced enough to override all these concerns. Of course, if you’re a caregiver and your kids are prone to nightmares, you might leave this one on the shelf.

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