Title: The Cabinet of Wonders
Author: Marie Rutkowski
Publisher: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
Genre: Historical (?) Fiction, Fantasy
Themes: Family, Freedom, Adventure, Magic
Age Range: 4th-6th Grade
Summary: (from Goodreads)
Petra Kronos has a simple, happy life. But it’s never been ordinary. She has a pet tin spider named Astrophil who likes to hide in her snarled hair and give her advice. Her best friend can trap lightning inside a glass sphere. Petra also has a father in faraway Prague who is able to move metal with his mind. He has been commissioned by the prince of Bohemia to build the world’s finest astronomical clock.
Petra’s life is forever changed when, one day, her father returns home—blind. The prince has stolen his eyes, enchanted them, and now wears them. But why? Petra doesn’t know, but she knows this: she will go to Prague, sneak into Salamander Castle, and steal her father’s eyes back.
Joining forces with Neel, whose fingers extend into invisible ghosts that pick locks and pockets, Petra finds that many people in the castle are not what they seem, and that her father’s clock has powers capable of destroying their world.
I read this book fully expecting to really like it. A blend of two of my favorite genres, historical fiction and fantasy, sounded like a recipe for enjoyment. Unfortunately, I think that it needed a pinch more history.
Rutkowski is clear in the afterword that she took historical figures and events and completely changed them to suit the purposes of the novel. She also says that she imagine some uptight history lovers sniffing their nose at her complete disregard for the historical record. Well, I certainly don't think of myself as uptight, but am going to turn up my nose slightly. Some of the characters are based on actual people who lived during the 16th Century. The geopolitical climate is similar to what was true at the time. And the Roma, from which group two of the main characters derive, is certainly real. But some of the history is changed not at all, some if changed a little, and some is completely fabricated. Not in an "imagine if THIS one thing has gone differently" sort of way, but just kind of randomly to suit the story.
That said, most fourth or fifth grade readers of this book are not going to know any of the above, and Rutkowski does tell you in the afterword what was factual and what was made up. But my real issue is that I don't think that she needed to base her story in the real world at all for it to work. Basically it's the story of a young girl fighting the injustice of an evil king using magic-there is nothing inherently "real world" in the plot that would have required the use of actual people and actual places. But, I imagine that younger readers, unlike me, will not really focus on that aspect of the book, and it is a good story. The people who have magical powers have unusual ones-not just the ability to do spells or, say, levitate objects, but the ability to manipulate matter to make something at once mundane and magical. Metal pets that grow and talk, marbles with water or lightning inside that multiples one-hundredfold when broken, a beautiful clock that can change the weather. This is a land where skill is just as important as power, and that is a good message for anyone.