The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle, Janet Fox’s middle-grade fantasy adventure has a smart, feisty girl hero; it has clockwork steampunk, the London Blitz, spies, sinister rooks who seem to be speaking, and magic. And lots of atmosphere!
Katherine Bateson, who goes by Kat, is the oldest of three children and her watchmaker father’s favorite. It is World War II, and America hasn’t entered the war yet. The Blitz has made London unsafe and many families are sending their children out of town. In addition to fixing watches and clocks, Father also disappears into dangerous parts of Europe, and that “job” can only be discussed in hints and codes.
Kat, her brother Robbie and little sister Amelie are sent away to a private school in Scotland, called Rookskill Castle Academy. Kat is logical, mathematical, smart and practical, but she feels the weight of responsibility as they are sent off, and when they get to the castle, the “academy” doesn’t seem to be quite right.
Lady Eleanor, wife of the castle’s current lord (who is related to the Batesons) is also the headmistress. Gregor, Lord Craig, is very ill, and the children never see him. At first glance, Lady Eleanor is coldly beautiful and glamorous, richly dressed, which is a little strange, given the hardships caused by the war. Kat does not trust her, and as the story progresses, Lady Eleanor becomes stranger and more threatening. We the readers also get snippets of a story from 1746 of a young bride to the castle, Leonora, who is escaping a bad situation at home, but is unable to give her husband a child. Leonora contacts a strange, powerful person who lives in the woods, and makes a bargain that will have consequences for hundreds of years.
The story melds the historical, magical tale of Leonora with the contemporary disappearances of the children at the academy, and both are tied to a jewelry item Lady Eleanor carries, a chatelaine. Chatelaines are interesting, a symbolic remnant of the actual ring of keys and tools a woman who managed a house or estate often wore. Lady Eleanor has one that is bizarre and scary, but Kat has one too, a gift from her Aunt Margaret. And the so-called “history tutor” at the academy, Mr. Storm, is very interested in historical artifacts, especially chatelaines. Fox weaves this all together to create a climax that is consistent and plausible, given the magical system she has developed.
Adult readers will see plot twists coming from a fair distance, but younger, less experienced readers will probably find some of the explanations surprising. The castle is filled with secret passages, eerie noises, and freezing drafts; the plot is filled with good twists and reversals, and often just when Kat thinks she is successful, she fails. It is interesting to watch her relationship with her brother and sister change, and to see the growing friendship with the American boy, Peter. Not all adults in the story are evil; you must judge the people in the story by their actions, not their appearance, and Kat herself is a changed person at the end. The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle is clearly the first book of a series, but it does not end on a cliffhanger. Kat’s immediate situation is resolved, but larger issues loom.
All of the children are well-developed characters, and Kat is smart and brave. The idea of Nazi spies combing the Scottish Isles for magical artifacts is a well-established trope based on historical fact, and Fox uses it adeptly in this story. I think The Charmed Children of Rookskill Castle would be a fun mother-daughter read. It’s a fun adventure that makes history exciting and intriguing.