Thursday, April 11, 2013

Puppets and Phoenix Stones: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

"She is real," Parsefall said. "Grisini must've--"

Lizzie Rose's fingers tightened. "He couldn't have, Parse. People can't do things like that. Magic spells--and evil magicians--"

"It's 'er!" insisted Parsefall. "Grisini did her."

But I am Clara, Clara wanted to protest, and then the word puppet struck home.

"People can't change into puppets," argued Lizzie Rose.

"Look at the gewgaw she's wearin'!" said Parsefall.

"Her birthday locket!" gasped Lizzie Rose. "She showed it to me!"

Yes, thought Lizzie Rose. It was Grisini."

In a foggy, grimy Victorian London, two orphans are in thrall to an evil puppeteer. Little Parsefall is wizened, mysteriously missing one finger, but his tiny hands can manipulate Grisini's puppets with as much magic as his master's. Lizzie Rose has little facility with the puppets, but raised as a much-loved child before losing her parents, she plays the violin beautifully and speaks well. But both children fear Grisini, an aging, and dark and menacingly malevolent master who grudgingly feeds them little and allows them chilly shelter in his dank, decaying lodgings in Mrs. Pinchbeck's boarding house.

But when the pampered but loveless surviving child of the rich Wintermute family sees their show in the streets, she threatens a tantrum unless she can have the puppeteers at her twelfth birthday party. Somehow, Clara forms a bond of friendship with the two indentured orphans at the party, and when Lizzie and Parse learn that Clara has been kidnapped, they are immediately convinced that Grisini, who has fallen under suspicion before, is behind the deed.

And then, hidden in Grisini's musty trunk they find a new puppet, one that is a a perfect replica of Clara in to her birthday dress and her locket, which opens to a miniature of her dead twin, even down to the tiny lock of his hair inside. Suddenly they believe they understand the magnitude of Grisini's evil power and fearfully realize that only
can do something to save Clara.

But there is more to Grisini's malevolent plan than they realize. Grisini is immersed in a struggle with an evil magic more powerful than his own--the witch Cassandra, whose phoenix stone necklace gives her power even over him. What Grisini does not know is that the fire within that stone is destroying Cassandra from the inside out. Longing to rid herself of the very source of her power, she knows that the stone cannot be given away nor discarded, only stolen, and in a tangled scheme she draws Lizzie Rose and Parsefall to her dark, towered mansion in the hope that one of them will filch the necklace from her.

The two orphans escape from London with Clara's puppet, but Grisini tracks them down and follows after them, hoping to regain Clara and revivify her for her ransom and also to steal the phoenix stone for himself.

Like a master puppeteer herself, two-time Newbery author Laura Amy Schlitz skillfully manipulates her characters into a dramatic denouement that will leave readers stunned and yet satisfied, in her Splendors and Glooms (Candlewick, 2012). Reviewers have been universally unable to describe this gripping tale without calling it Gothic and Dickensian, and for good reason. Schlitz's setting, with the cold itself palpable, is seen only in a dim and gloomy light, grimy and filthy with manure in the streets and smelly and steaming with life, while her characters exhibit all of the dark places in the human heart as well as the surprising virtues of love, loyalty, courage, and redemption. Every character has his or her flaw, but except for Grisini, who remains true to type, his greedy and fateful flaw bringing about his own destruction, all, even Cassandra, are at last redeemed by their own transcending human grace. Said the New York Times Book Review," "Filled with heart-pounding and heart-rending moments, this delicious, glorious novel is the work of a master of children's literature."

Recipient of the 2013 Newbery Honor Award for this novel, Laura Amy Schlitz was awarded the Newbery Medal in 2008 for her Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village.

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