Let’s have some fun now, shall we? A wonderful woman at Candlewick who apparently knows my taste through and through sent me a note before Rosh Hashanah asking if I knew about The Clockwork Crow, by Catherine Fisher, which was released on September 8. I had not seen it, but she compared it to Joan Aiken and Eva Ibbotson and you all know my feelings about Joan Aiken and also did I mention it’s set in Victorian Wales?
I don’t know how to sum up this book better than to say it was incredibly fun to read and I was gleeful to find out that it’s the first in a trilogy, because the thought of more made me clap my hands, and no I’m not exaggerating. I read it in what felt like five minutes over Rosh Hashanah, but I’m sure was about two hours. The time zoomed happily by as I took the train to Plas-y Fran in Wales with poor orphaned Seren Rhys who so longed for a home and happiness after her time at the orphanage. Then the tall, dark stranger hands her a newspaper bundle… and he disappears. When she arrives at the lonely, dark mansion house (not the lovely, illuminated home she’d been expecting and hoping for), she opens the bundle, connects the pieces– and finds she’s made a clockwork crow who is much more than he seems. Can Seren discover the secrets and mysteries behind the emptiness of the mansion house, the disappearance of young Tomos, the son of the house, and, perhaps, even of the cranky mechanical crow himself? (SPOILER ALERT: It turns out fine.)
With a tall, remote housekeeper who may or may not be friendly and a healthy dose of magic into the mix, this book might honestly have been written with me in mind, so I took the precaution of checking with the owner of the Children’s Book Shop in Brookline, where it had a face-out display, if she thought it was as enchanting to read as I’d found it? “It was just so much fun!” she exclaimed. “It might as well have been written for me. And the comparison to Joan Aiken was so apt, really.” So, you know, endorsed not just by me, but also by an actual expert who’s apparently been waiting for a really fun mystery and fantasy novel rooted in Wales as much as I have.
Look, my taste for Victoriana in kids’ mystery novels is no surprise. We’ve discussed The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place by Maryrose Woods and Judith Rossell’s series on Stella Montgomery, another trilogy of Gothic Victoriana. But I have very strong feelings, intensely picky feelings, regarding books set in Victorian times: if not done properly, the results are disastrous.
The goal, I always feel, is for a perfectly natural reading experience. If you’re jolted by a feeling of “was that right, would that have happened?” the experience is destroyed and the book is ruined. Well, Seren Rhys is the ideal protagonist: she’s smart and wary and clever. She reads all the right books for the time period, and she explores the twisty, turny house just enough to get your heart beating but not so much that you think she must be stupid. As for the writing, Catherine Fisher’s prose is smooth and readable by any middle grade child today (they recommend for ages 9-12, but I suspect you could stretch a bit in either direction) but without either sounding unduly “modern” or, worse, fatally aiming towards a “Victorian style” which is utterly unachievable and rings a false note.
In short: this did not jolt me out of the motion of the plot and character, and it was a truly delightful read. I can’t wait for the next books in the series, and I have a strong suspicion you and your kids will feel exactly the same way. I’m going to make you a suggestion, though:
This is a time for innovation in reading groups, and I had so much fun chatting about this book at the book shop, I think your kids would like to chat about it, too. I want to recommend that if you have a kid the right age and with the right interests? Set up a reading group with a friend or two. My Changeling asked me to set up a “book club” for her and a friend, and I thought it was a brilliant idea! I’ve written to the other kid’s parents with a short list of suggested titles (you’d better believe this is on the list, along with Grace Lin’s Where the Mountain Meets the Moon— how have I never reviewed that?– and a few others). They’ll meet to talk on Zoom and maybe for a few socially distanced outdoors celebrations when they finish a book.
And if you need suggestions for your book club, or just for your kid’s reading? Don’t forget my offer in my Three Little Kittens post!
Write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with the following:
a) Your literary interests
b) Your name
c) Your mailing address
I will write you a recommendation on a Three Little Kittens card, with a Snowy Day stamp! That’s it! Easy as that.