The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski
The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski is perhaps not itself a “wonder” (that sort of praise is a bit too breathlessly over the top), but it comes close enough to deserve an enthusiastic recommendation and a preeminent place on any child’s shelf. Start with several appealing and richly drawn characters; add an inventive mix of history, folk tales, and the author’s own plotting; toss in an original blend of various magics and technologies, sprinkle a few grim moments about and several more whimsical ones; add one villain who both charms and chills, and a possible ally who mostly just chills; and top it all off with an intelligent mechanical spider and what you get is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
The Cabinet of Wonders is set near the end of the 16th century in quasi-historical Prague, capital of Bohemia and home to its ruler, young Prince Rodolpho, one of three sons to the Hapsburg emperor. Rodolpho has recently commissioned the construction of a wondrous astronomical clock for Prague and the book opens up with the return home of the clock’s builder — Mikal Kronos. This is one of those grim moments, for Mikal’s “reward” for completing the clock was having his eyes removed, ostensibly so he could never build anything so wondrous again, leaving the Prince with a one-of-a-kind marvel.
Mikal is welcomed home by his 12-year-old daughter Petra, who is of course horrified and furious at the Prince’s action. Even more so when she learns that at the Prince’s behest, Mikal (who like many in this world has a unique magical talent) has imbued the clock with powers well beyond simply telling time — powers that will be fully realized once the Prince manages to assemble the one part Mikal left undone. Wanting revenge for the Prince’s cruelty, and regained sight for her father, Petra decides to steal away to Prague and find some way to steal back her father’s eyes.
She is accompanied by a mechanical spider named Astrophil (one of several “tin pets” her father has created) and then in Prague meets and befriends a young Roma thief named Neel whose magical talent, “ghost fingers,” just might come in handy. All three of these characters — Petra, Astrophil, and Neel — are appealing and are richly and concisely drawn. This is true about almost all the characters we meet, including Prince Rodolpho, his cousin Iris (whose skin leaks acid and who Petra works for in the castle), and John Dee (English spy and magician who has his own plans for Petra, the clock, and the Prince). All of these play a major role in The Cabinet of Wonders, but minor characters aren’t slighted in the characterization or plot departments — each feels like an individual, and several play surprising roles.
The Cabinet of Wonders moves along at a quick pace but we still get lots of rich detail when needed and lots of wonderfully original flights of imagination. It is a supremely efficient book, one that is concise and lean but never feels like it’s glossing over things or leaving things out completely. In a genre dominated by doorstopper books, most of which could have been cut by a quarter at least with no harm to the reading experience, it’s a true pleasure to come across a fantasy author who can offer up so much so economically. And a tip of the hat as well for giving us a complete book — one that can stand alone but that also leaves room for a sequel.
As for flaws, there are a few points where things happen a bit too easily, and now and then there might be some clunky dialogue or exposition, but these are relatively rare occasions and are more than outweighed by Petra’s sparkly appeal and the author’s sense of invention. Enthusiastically recommended.
The Kronos Chronicles — (2008-2011) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Petra Kronos has a simple, happy life. But it’s never been ordinary. She has a pet tin spider named Astrophil who likes to hide in her snarled hair and give her advice. Her best friend can trap lightning inside a glass sphere. Petra also has a father in faraway Prague who is able to move metal with his mind. He has been commissioned by the prince of Bohemia to build the world’s finest astronomical clock. Petra’s life is forever changed when, one day, her father returns home — blind. The prince has stolen his eyes, enchanted them, and now wears them. But why? Petra doesn’t know, but she knows this: she will go to Prague, sneak into Salamander Castle, and steal her father’s eyes back. Joining forces with Neel, whose fingers extend into invisible ghosts that pick locks and pockets, Petra finds that many people in the castle are not what they seem, and that her father’s clock has powers capable of destroying their world. This startling debut novel, about the risks we take to protect those we love, brims with magic, political intrigue, and heroism.