I confess, I’ve been put off by YA books a lot lately. The trends seem to lean towards dark and “edgy” books (many of which sound depressing) and Twilight clones and wannabes. I can deal with the former, but the latter isn’t my thing. But while I was browsing one day, the cover of Eyes Likes Stars caught my attention (not surprising, since it’s gorgeous). I read the blurb and decided I had to get it; it sounded fresh, original, and fun. And it very much is.
Lisa Mantchev has created something special with her Theatre Illuminata. In the Theatre, all the characters from all the plays ever written exist, to be called upon at need (mostly) when plays are staged. (Note: I don’t consider this a spoiler. Though Bertie suffers some astonishment at one point that the Theatre holds more than just the complete works of Shakespeare, I’m really not sure why. Most of the characters that appear are Shakespeare characters, but her friend Nate is from The Little Mermaid and there are myriad other references that make it clear to the reader that the Theatre deals in more than just Shakespeare.)
I’m not very familiar with the works of Shakespeare (I blame school and Romeo and Juliet for this), but even so, I got the strong impression that Lisa Mantchev captures the essence of the characters very well. What’s more, she takes them outside their initial characterization, changing them in ways that make a lot of sense, due to their time in the Theatre and their exposure to Bertie. The Players Bertie is friends with all charm in their own ways, but they still feel like people rather than characters from plays. Though admittedly my favorites were Peaseblossom, Moth, Cobweb, and Mustardseed, the four fairies from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I always was a sucker for zany, funny antics.
I do think Mantchev might have been trying a little hard with Bertie, what with her clove cigarettes and dying her hair wild colors. Bertie is also a bit reckless, at times almost careless, and I’m not convinced she suffers the consequences of her actions the way she should. Still, she’s not a bad character, nor is she unsympathetic, and there’s plenty of room for her to grow. And in the meantime, she has her wonderful cast to prop her up.
Eyes Like Stars is the first book of a series, and it shows in some loose threads and a somewhat cliffhanger ending. Fortunately, Mantchev doesn’t make the same mistake that some other authors do. She sets up her initial conflict: Bertie must prove herself invaluable to the Theatre, or she will be forced to leave. She decides to restage the play Hamlet, setting it in Egypt in the hopes of drawing in better custom for the Theatre. During the four days (!) she’s given to do this, another, far more immediate problem crops up (I won’t spoil it, though). Mantchev makes sure to give the reader closure on the plot’s most important points, and doesn’t neglect to resolve her initial conflict while doing so, a mistake other authors often make. So while there are some threads left at the end, they’re more tantalizing than frustrating.
The beginning of Eyes Like Stars is a bit frantic and hard to follow, but that evens out. Also, at first I didn’t feel much emotion from Bertie, nor much connection with her thoughts and feelings. This too evens out over the course of the book. Really, the small flaws in Eyes Like Stars can’t dim it much. It’s delightful, enchanting, and fun, with a tone that reminds me of authors like Diana Wynne Jones and Patricia C. Wrede. I’m definitely looking forward to the next one.
Theatre Illuminata — (2009-2011) Young adult. Publisher: All her world’s a stage. Bertie Shakespeare Smith is not an actress, yet she lives in a theater. She’s not an orphan, but she has no parents. She knows every part, but she has no lines of her own. That is, until now. Enter Stage Right. NATE. Dashing pirate. Will do anything to protect Bertie. COBWEB, MOTH, MUSTARD SEED, and PEASEBLOSSOM. Four tiny and incredibly annoying fairies. BERTIE’S sidekicks. ARIEL. Seductive air spirit and Bertie’s weakness. The symbol of impending doom. BERTIE. Our heroine. Welcome to the Théâtre Illuminata, where the actors of every play ever written can be found behind the curtain. They were born to play their parts, and are bound to the Théâtre by The Book — an ancient and magical tome of scripts. Bertie is not one of them, but they are her family — and she is about to lose them all and the only home she has ever known. Lisa Mantchev has written a debut novel that is dramatic, romantic, and witty, with an irresistible and irreverent cast of characters who are sure to enchant the audience. Open Curtain.