Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

I think this rather dark fantasy about a witch, three children, and some marionettes is my favorite of all Ms. Schlitz’s books that I’ve read. I like the fact that her books are all different from each other and that they all stand alone. A Drowned Maiden’s Hair, the book that won the Cybils Award for Middle Grade Fiction in 2007, was historical melodrama, set in the New England in the early twentieth century, with some historical characters and (fake) seances thrown into the mix. Her Newbery award-winning book, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, is a series of 22 monologues told from the point of view of 22 different medieval characters who live in a typical village. The Night Fairy is more of a fairy tale for younger children, those who are just entering the chapter book reading phase.

And now we have Splendors and Glooms, Ms. Schlitz’s latest offering, set in Victorian England, which tells the story of two orphan children who are under the care and domination of an Italian puppet-master named Grisini. Grisini is appropriately greasy and nasty and villainous. Cassandra, the witch of the tale, appropriately lives in a sort of castle with a tower, and she’s, of course, clairvoyant and insane, just like the mythological Cassandra. The orphans, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall seem like typical Victorian street urchins at first, but each one is much more complicated and multifaceted than the typical Oliver Twist character in a Victorian novel. Lizzie Rose is a good girl, motherly and always seeing the best in people, but she manages to lead Parsefall and their friend into danger and still remain strong and compassionate to the end. Parsefall is the Artful Dodger of the piece, but he has a secret wound and turns out to be a true knight who saves the “princess” from death.

The final major character in this ensemble cast is Clara Wintermere, who is the only child from her rich family to survive a cholera epidemic that killed her five siblings when she was only five years old. Clara’s been living in the shadow of those siblings, called the “deaders” by Parsefall, ever since. Clara is the Poor Little Rich Girl who’s so protected and spoiled that she has only a hint of a personality in the beginning of the book, but it is Clara who manages to defeat the witch and her magic and free the children from Cassandra’s evil spells.

The title comes from the poem Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, canto 13, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I’ll leave you with the section of the poem that’s printed in the beginning of the book because it sums up the atmosphere of this brooding and haunting novel that turns out to be a rather down-to-earth story of the rescue and redemption of three children and a witch:

And others came . . . Desires and Adorations,
Wingèd Persuasions and veiled Destinies,
Splendours, and Glooms, and glimmering Incarnations
Of hopes and fears, and twilight Phantasies;
And Sorrow, with her family of Sighs,
And Pleasure, blind with tears, led by the gleam
Of her own dying smile instead of eyes,
Came in slow pomp;–the moving pomp might seem
Like pageantry of mist on an autumnal stream.

Splendors and Glooms is eligible to be nominated for a Cybils Award in the category of Middle Grade Fantasy and Science Fiction. Nominations are open October 1-15, 2012.

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