Friday, July 22, 2016

Something Wicked This Way Comes: Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

"Never go into the forest," Pa had told her many times. "There are dark forces there that no one understands, things that ain't natural and can do ya wicked harm."

Pa has his reasons. He found the infant Serafina, a half-dead newborn at the place of a bloody struggle in the deep forest, a place that humans have feared since ancient times. And Serafina was not the usual infant foundling: she had only four toes and fingers on her feet and hands, her spine had extra vertebrae which make her unusually supple, and her collarbone is not joined, letting her squeeze into small spaces. And then, there are her large yellow eyes that can see as well by night as by day.

Pa's job is to keep the steam engines and giant electric dynamo running to keep lights on at the Vanderbilt estate in the North Carolina mountains, and at first it is easy to keep little Serafina hidden with him in the labyrinthine cellars beneath Biltmore. But Serafina is now 12, curious about the world above, and uses her small size and agility to squeeze through the air ducts and hide in dark corners upstairs to spy on the lives of the Vanderbilts upstairs. She even manages secretly to befriend the lonely young Braeden Vanderbilt, orphaned nephew of the masters of the house.

And when Serafina encounters an elderly guest, Mr. Thorne, wrapped in a frightful black cloak that seems to have a life of its own, she watches him seize the young girl guest, Clara Brahms, who seems to vanish in a black, stench-filled cloud inside the cloak. Serafina and Braeden watch other children disappear, first another wealthy guest, Anastasia Rostonov, and then Nolan, son of the stable master, taken from their carriage on a dim track through the forest.

Serafina feels that she alone can stop the devastation of the Black Cloak, but to do so, she has to confront the horrible apparition deep in the dark forest.

On the other side of the two crossed, she came into a boscage of rotting dead snags, with rocks on the ground as sharp as ax blades. The narrow, overgrown track twisted and turned, and dove down into a rocky ravine, and she couldn't see what lay beyond.

As she gazed at the darkened passage, a shiver went through her spine. She had no idea where it would lead her, but she started down the path.

Like the sorcerer's stone that grants eternal life and unbridled power, the evil black cloak needs a human body to carry out its evil ends, and as Serafina confronts the decaying Mr.Thorne inside the cloak in the graveyard deep in the woods, even she must resist its attraction, its offer of all knowledge, all power, and life everlasting.

Robert Beatty's Serafina and the Black Cloak (Hyperion Books, 2016), only published last month, has become an instant best seller and a classic tale of the young hero or heroine called to go forth in the battle with good and evil. Like the Harry Potter stories, with which it shares many elements of fantasy, this new novel offers the same non-stop immersion into the narrative, the same seemingly flawed, halfling hero who confronts evil, that made Rowling's series iconic. Beatty's narrative in Serafina's voice is hypnotically engrossing, filled with action and insight that foreshadows great sequels to follow, one of which has just been published, Serafina and the Twisted Staff (A Serafina Novel) and looks to establish itself as an American classic in the vein of the English fantasy tradition that gave us Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, Lewis' Narnia books, and Rowling's Harry Potter series, with the eternal struggle against evil all wound thrillingly inside our own native Appalachian folklore. A strongly written novel and a killer-diller thriller for summer reading.

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