Review: Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz

Thursday, June 28, 2012
Genre: supernatural fiction, young-adult, middle grade
Series: N/A
Pages: 400 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected August 28 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 3.75/5

The master puppeteer, Gaspare Grisini, is so expert at manipulating his stringed puppets that they appear alive. Clara Wintermute, the only child of a wealthy doctor, is spellbound by Grisini’s act and invites him to entertain at her birthday party. Seeing his chance to make a fortune, Grisini accepts and makes a splendidly gaudy entrance with caravan, puppets, and his two orphaned assistants. 
Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are dazzled by the Wintermute home. Clara seems to have everything they lack — adoring parents, warmth, and plenty to eat. In fact, Clara’s life is shadowed by grief, guilt, and secrets. When Clara vanishes that night, suspicion of kidnapping falls upon the puppeteer and, by association, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall.
As they seek to puzzle out Clara’s whereabouts, Lizzie and Parse uncover Grisini’s criminal past and wake up to his evil intentions. Fleeing London, they find themselves caught in a trap set by Grisini’s ancient rival, a witch with a deadly inheritance to shed before it’s too late. 
Newbery Medal winner Laura Amy Schlitz’s Victorian gothic is a rich banquet of dark comedy, scorching magic, and the brilliant and bewitching storytelling that is her trademark.

I hate this feeling. I am having An Issue -- that thing where you wanted to love a book, but just can't. I readily admit that Splendors and Glooms had me sold superficially - based on the awesome title and the eye-catchingly foreboding cover (not to mention the "Newberry Medal Winner" label), I anticipated an imaginative and dark, fully-involving read. And for some of 400 pages that makes up this novel, I got exactly what I had anticipated, but even creepier (think that awful episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark with the awful human-porcelain dolls) but other sections of the narrative failed to live up that level of engagement and creepitude. Laura Amy Schlitz has shown herself certainly as an author with an eye for detail and as a talented storyteller, but on the whole, this novel is not as tight as it could've been with some editing and a little more focus on character development.

Splendors and Glooms is a hard beast for me to categorize upon finishing reading; it's labelled most commonly as middle grade on Goodreads, and while some elements certainly come across that way, others are far more mature and advanced than usually seen for that particular genre. It's a dark, detailed and very Gothic tale of two orphans at the whims of two very unpleasant and unscrupulous people -- like puppets wheeled out on a string. For all that Splendors and Glooms talks a big game and my initial enjoyment (and apprehension! Kids trapped in dolls! Insane, unhinged witches! Evil magician kidnappers!), I was mildly let down by several stretches in this unusual book; after the kids flee London there is an extended lull in the pacing and events (read: not a lot happens for 75-100 pages or so); and for a final conflict with a mad witch, an evil magician/puppeteer and three smart, creative kids, the finale of this came off as far too easy and simple. It lacked excitement or suspense when it should have been most riveting. It just seems so incredibly easy - all the fallout is ridiculously convenient or overcome with a few tears. After collapsing a tower and escaping magical spells, surely the denouement could've been spiced up just a bit, instead of reading as dryly and simply as it does?

I enjoyed this, but it wasn't the great experience, the wholly encompassing Gothic tale I'd hoped for.  Splendors and Glooms was definitely good - fun, with a few unseen twists to keep me intrigued as the serviceable prose and likeable, if not wholly developed, characters meandered their way through the plot. I just wanted more: more from the characters, more from the atmosphere, more excitement. The characters here are largely one-dimensional (particularly the antagonists), except for the children: Cassandra is desperate, Grisini is evil, Pinchbeck is an amusing drunk. The author's subtle execution of Cassandra's attempts to manipulate the canny Parsefall and the innocent Lizzie into doing as she wants casts a striking parallel with the core story of Grisini, the missing children from all over England, as well as his handlings with Parsefall particularly.  While Grisini's level of malevolence and even his presence, fell further and further from notice, Cassandra's turn at the helm of "puppeteer" made for the most macabre scene of the entire novel.

The antagonists shown here are clearly more of the MG genre type of ilk. Not for Splendors and Glooms the complex, conflicted, charismatic villain that I love to read about; both Cassandra and Grisini are primarily motiveless (outside sheer greed) and one-dimensional in their development. They're just bad because they are. Consequently, Cassandra's life is as hollow and lifeless as the dolls that Grisini cultivates, and to their credit, the rest of the players are largely more dynamic than the ailing woman. As for the others, Lizzie Rose is primarily one note for three-fourths of the novel - perpetually sweet and innocent as a contrast to Parsefall's more inscrutable, cutthroat nature.  Parsefall alone is the question mark amongst all the other characters - his nature and his story are more YA than middle grade in tone, and his conflicted personalty is more adult in nature than his contemporaries of Lizzie and Clara. He's interesting in a way Lizzie and the others just aren't. Ms. Wintermute's story is fairly compelling once the author slowly reveals the story of "the Others" and Clara's life after, but not much insight is given into developing further. This is perhaps hampered by her state for much of the book, but Clara's story lacked the edge it needed; rather it was Parsefall's "black spot" that proved the more riveting, if sad.

Though uneven, I think I am a fan of this dark and twisted tale of secrets, magic and betrayal. The slower pace and final conflict may lose a few readers, but I liked this. I didn't love Splendors and Glooms as I wanted to, but this was an enjoyable and unusual read for me. Some aspects fell short and didn't live up to expectations, other surprised me with their inclusion, but my impression was largely favorable for this imaginative journey with Parsefall, Lizzie Rose, Ruby and Clara.

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