Fire Spell by Laura Amy Schlitz

Sometimes it’s hard to describe a great book. It might not change your life, but it will warm your heart, and Fire Spell was just such a book. From start to finish, it was a lovely Victorian tale, with strong magical influences, Gothic overtones and it took wonderful cues from the fairytale traditions of old.

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Fire Spell’s wonderfully Gothic cover art.

Set in 1860, Fire Spell weaves the stories of several characters, all intermixed with a shared destiny. We meet Clara Wintermute, a young girl from a rich family, the last of the Wintermute family’s children not claimed by cholera. Sad and alone, living in a house overshadowed by death and mourning, Clara yearns to find a way out and to finally manage to be herself. For her birthday, she asks to have the travelling puppet theatre she saw in the park perform at her party. Here, we’re introduced to the scheming puppet master and magician Grisini, and his two orphaned assistants, Parsefall & Lizzie-Rose. When, after her party, Clara goes missing, Grisini and his band of puppeteers are the first suspects. Parsefall & Lizzie-Rose have no idea where she might be. Or where the mysterious new puppet that looks startlingly like young Clara Wintermute came from. Grisini is not a kind master to the two young orphans, and when he goes missing, they couldn’t be happier. Then a letter arrives, from a mysterious benefactor, promising Grisini’s new wards everything they need to live their lives in perfect peace and comfort. Who is Cassandra? And what is the powerful and encapsulating Fire Opal the dying witch keeps on her at all times? There’s mystery wrapped up in mystery, and Lizzie-Rose and her adopted brother are determined to get to the bottom of it all.

The very first thing I want to say about Fire Spell is that it is a fantastic read, that gets character design absolutely spot on. From the off, I knew who to hate, who was the hero, & I was instantly sympathetic to the plights of all the protagonists. Lizzie-Rose was by far my favourite character, so pure and kind, intelligent and caring, she was an easy person to love, and through her innocent, proud eyes, the cruelty of Grisini was amplified, and really got to my centre. Parsefall’s broken cockney style was great, and his softer, sometimes selfless acts, really helped develop him as a fuller, more rounded character than the stereotypical young cockney thief from so many Victorian novels. Clara’s yearning for freedom, her sadness and melancholy nature really worked well with Parsefall’s bleak outlook, & counteracted Lizzie-Rose’s positive life-view in a great balancing act of characters, all of whom where full, well developed, likeable and believable. Grisini as the poor, cruel Puppetmaster was a classic villain straight from the work of the brothers Grimm, and his underlying secret past of magic and deception added to his gritty, untrustworthy nature. Cassandra, the old withered witch, was another brilliant character, parts antagonist and parts tragedy. Her actions might be selfish at times, but her reflections on her mistakes help to redeem her as a character, and stop her being just another fairy-tale witch. Ultimately, she has one of the fullest character developments, and offers all three children an insight into the results of a life spent in pursuit of material gain, showing them how much more can be gained from life through friendship.

The use of description in Fire Spell is subtle and well paced, and I never felt like I was being described an event overly, so as to break the story’s flow. The pacing of the story itself is brilliant, switching perspectives between the three children to get a full glimpse of the mystery, and the other characters. Each backstory is told through flashbacks, stories and dream-sequences, fleshing out good guys and bad guys alike into full human beings, with flaws and emotions, reasons for the way they behave in the situations they come to. The book also uses puppet imagery brilliantly to represent how adults pull the strings, not allowing children to live their own lives. Or at least, that’s what I took away from it. All the children are miserable when they’re living according to the adult’s wishes. It’s only once they’re free to make their own decisions that they truly become happy.

It’s a great book for 9-10+, with a wonderful sense of childhood, magic and wonder.

D

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