Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Book Review: Cybils Finalist, The Cabinet of Wonders

The Cabinet of Wonders starts off with a gruesome scene in the prologue, but the rest of the book is full of vim and vigor, with a determinedly bright outlook. These adjectives describe the protagonist, Petra, equally well.

Spunky, unconventional girls are all over kidlit these days. None of them think of themselves as pretty, although most of them are dropdead
gorgeous and they just don't know the effect they have ton people. Many have to undertake grim tasks, risk their lives and everything they treasure to achieve a seemingly impossible goal. Many of them have boy best friends who may turn into romantic interests. These heroines act with great courage and make decisions out of classic values such as honor and justice.

So why is it that Petra's story doesn't feel trite or commonplace?

The answer comes down to a just-right combination of craft, story, heart, with some magic thrown in. Exactly what that combination is, well, that's what so many writers try to find out everyday.

Back to the book: Petra loves her father.

That fact drives the whole story. Her relationships with her pet spider, Astropil, and good friends, Tomik and Neel, are shown in great depth. Her motivations are clearly set out and easily relatable. The magic is fantastically imaginative. But it's her love for her father that pulses underneath all the actions and development of the book. That is why, when towards the end [spoiler alert] she blurts out the unthinkable "I hate you!" , my breath got caught in my throat.

Yes, when a story affects me this way, I am sold.

I do have a small number of nitpicky things with the book. I understand the reasons for each of them, but still wish somehow there are ways to solve those plot problems without the results sticking out quite so much.

[Spoiler alert again. You are under strict orders to read the following only after you've enjoyed the book!]

First off, the prologue bothered me. It didn't seem necessary to show Mikal Kronos being transported home. Starting the story with chapter 1 seems perfect. We get to meet Petra and her normal life before everything in her life turns upside down. But we need to know about the Jarek's horse, which is touched on in the prologue, so Petra can come home at the end.

Second nit-pick: when Petra started work at the castle, it seems strange that she would jeopardize her chance to stay at the castle, all because of the bad treatment--which she surely would have expected--she's received from the head cook. She's risked so much, she would have had to endure a lot more than what she did to sabotage her plans. Again, I realize she has to make her way to Iris's workshop and this was how she got there.

Third, just before Petra sees the heart of the clock, she suddenly recalls Tomik, whom she hasn't thought about for chapters. I had to stop to remember who Tomik is. Tomik is mentioned because Petra is about to unleash the spheres so we need a reminder of their existence. I wish Tomik was on her mind more often during her time in the castle, if only in the form of comparison with Neel.

These complaints, though, are very, very small.

[End: spoiler alert.]

This is an excellent book, and I highly recommend it. Go read it.

ps I typically don't read much fantasy or sci-fi, but now the folks over at the Cybils are turning me on to the genre. Hunger Games, Graceling, and now Cabinet of Wonders. Grumble, grumble. Like I don't have enough books that I already want to read? I hope you guys are happy!

AN UPDATE: As I mull over this book's prologue, Nathan Bransford is offering an agent's perspective on the subject of prologues. Check it out.

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