Goodreads: Splendors and Glooms
When Clara Wintermute goes missing after her twelfth birthday party, the police suspect master puppeteer Grissini and his two orphaned assistants. Though the police find nothing, Grissini’s increasingly suspicious behavior draws the attention of the children, who determine to find Clara and return her to her family. Their journey will entangle them with Grissini’s ancient enemy, a witch who desires to save her own life at any cost—even if that means taking the life of a child.
Splendors and Glooms delights in combining the elements of what might be called a Gothic Victorian mystery, so that immediately upon opening the book introduces readers to a witch, a curse, an evil puppet master, a pair of orphans, and a disturbing look at Victorian mourning carried to excess. Death, magic, and poverty are the key ingredients in this tale, evoking a world that seems to try for the Dickensian, though it lacks both the caricature-like characterization as well as the overt focus on social change that could be considered Dicken’s hallmarks. The filth here seems present to create atmosphere more than anything else, as do, frankly, many other of the elements (though we do get a look at orphan Lizzie Rose’s despair when she tries to think of how to earn enough money to live). Fortunately, the mystery and magic remain strong enough to carry the story through regardless.
Laura Amy Schlitz deftly handles a fairly large cast of characters, switching viewpoints among them so readers can see how the storylines of rich Clara Wintermute and her family, the pupeteer and his orphans, and the puppeteer’s old nemesis intertwine to form a (relatively) cohesive whole. The result is an intricate tapestry that delights with its sense of complexity even as it draws readers farther into the mystery. Though sometimes multiple perspectives can jar a reader out of the story, Schlitz’s transitions seem natural and necessary, an integral way of setting forth the narrative. It does not hurt that her characters are all likable and interesting in their own ways–even the desperate witch provokes sympathy and even the harsh Wintermutes are understandable–so that switching viewpoints never proved annoying, at least to me.
Of course, these characters travel through a strange and bizarre world, one that warrants as much attention as they do themselves. I found myself entranced by the magic woven throughout, horrified by the hatred and curses of the witch and her apprentice, appalled by the decision of the Wintermutes to prioritize the memories of their dead children over their living daughter. The atmosphere is dark, dangerous, gritty–and often disturbing. At times I wondered if this book, full of dark magic and hatred and remembered illicit loves, could really be for children.
However, a little gleam of light shines throughout the story. Schlitz does not glorify or romanticize the dark magic. She does not turn from heaping judgment upon those commit evil acts. And she makes a point of showing that good still exists in the world, from Lizzie Rose’s devotion to her adopted brother Parsefall to Clara’s ability to cross class boundaries. Happiness comes in the end and those who have done evil receive their just punishment. The characters are complex, not black or white, but their actions are never glossed over with some wishy-washy talk of virtue and vice being outdated.
Splendors and Glooms is a mesmerizing tale that is not afraid to look into dark places or to present readers with an intricate tale that asks its readers to sympathize with and forgive its characters, even when they seem most disagreeable. It is an astounding feat for a middle grade work. I look forward to reading more of Schlitz’s work in the future.