Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Fire Spell

Fire Spell by Laura Amy Schlitz (Bloomsbury)
PB RRP $14.99
Reviewed by Hilary Smillie
Fire Spell is set in London,1860, an era well chosen for a gothic fairytale, complete with defenceless children to pity, villains to hate, and lashings of black magic. The story revolves around a wealthy young girl, Clara Wintermute, living a dreary life with parents forever mourning the deaths of her siblings through cholera.
While out with Agnes, the housemaid, Clara spies a puppet show in the park. Enchanted, she begs her parents to let the puppeteers - a weird-looking man, Grisini, a girl a little older than herself, Lizzie-Rose, and a thin younger boy, Parsefall - give a performance at her twelfth birthday celebrations. To her delight, they agree, but before her birthday is over, Clara has vanished - kidnapped and changed into a marionette by Grisini. However, before he can collect the ransom he is compelled by a witch, Cassandra, to her lair, Strachan's Ghyll near Lake Windemere, England. She has in her possession a jewel, the phoenix-stone, which is at once both dazzling and threatening and she fears for her life.
Schlitz weaves a sinister but fascinating story binding the lives of the two ragged children, taken from the orphanage by Grisini to work alongside him, with that of Clara and ultimately the witch. She is a master of suspense and lays a trail of intrigue from the opening page. What was a much younger Grisini trying to tell Cassandra about the phoenix-stone she wears in a necklace when she banished him? Will Grisini's power over Clara be broken so she can return to human form?
The story is told with great attention to detail, portraying thoroughly rounded characters and using real locations to add a significant touch of authenticity. Schlitz highlights brilliantly the conditions the poor of that era strived against and also the traditions which constrained emotions and behaviour of the upper classes. Her imagination rivals the Brothers Grimm and even the incredible parts of the story are readily accepted by the reader once immersed in the nightmare world Schlitz creates. It is, however, balanced by touches of compassion and kindness.
The author uses many lofty words, including Latin and French, which makes me doubt many nine year olds would persevere with this lengthy book, but perhaps the top end of the targeted age group, twelve, may, provided they are avid readers. Certainly most teenagers will find Fire Spell mesmerising and thoroughly entertaining.

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