This exciting and highly original novel may be found in the Youth Fiction section of a bookshop, but that is cutting off a lot of potential readers. Fire Spell, or Splendours and Glooms as its American publishers named it, is a story adults will also appreciate.
Laura Amy Schlitz's dark Victorian thriller has a plot to equal any novel for adults, and her characterisation and prose are of the highest quality.
Schlitz offers a story full of suspense and unsettling tension. The setting is London, 1860. Twelve-year-old Clara Wintermute lives a privileged life with her two grieving parents: Clara's other siblings recently died from cholera, and Clara suffers guilt that the disease did not claim her. She is lonely and yearns for company her own age.
To celebrate Clara's birthday, her father invites a puppet theatre to his mansion to entertain her. The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is expert at manipulating his stringed puppets so that they appear alive. Clara is spellbound by Grisini's puppets, and intrigued by the two orphans, Lizzie Rose and Parsifall, who assist him.
On the night of her birthday, Clara disappears. The Wintermutes and the police suspect that the mysterious Grisini has kidnapped her, but they have no evidence. Lizzie Rose and Parsifall also think Grisini has done something to Clara, and when Grisini, too, disappears, his assistants begin some investigations of their own.
The trail to find Grisini takes Lizzie Rose and Parsifall out of London to the remote Lake District in the north of England. But Grisini has laid a trap for them, and they walk straight into it. They are led to the castle of an ancient, dying witch, Cassandra Sagredo.
When they discover what has happened to Clara, Lizzie Rose and Parsifall are horrified. She must be rescued, at all costs, from the hands of Grisini and the witch.
Schlitz has created two extraordinary characters in Lizzie Rose and Parsifall. And she keeps the villain Grisini well in the shadows, adding great mystery to his character.
With a terrific plot, great characters and top quality writing, this outstanding novel is a classy and exciting read. Fans of mystery and Gothic fiction in particular will relish every page, but there's something for everyone. It will certainly appear when the time comes to draw up a list of the best books of 2012.
John Millen can be contacted on [email protected]