Tuesday, January 7, 2014

I Judged a Book by its Cover

My local library has a little display section where the staff select a range of books that changes week by week. I suppose I should ask them what the criteria are. I generally have a flick through to see if there's anything interesting. Usually there isn't: fantasy, crime, romance, chick-lit, and so on. My technique is to browse by cover, title, read the blurb if it looks promising, then flick open and check the prose. Few make it through this rigorous process of selection and grading.

Buy Fire Spell on Amazon
One that did is "Fire Spell" by Laura Amy Schlitz. Lovely cover, of a marionette silhouetted against the London skyline. The prose definitely passed muster. So I borrowed it.

(In the US the book is published as "Splendors and Glooms", a decidedly odd title that seems to have nothing to do with the story at all!)

I really enjoyed this book. It's a fantasy novel, I suppose, though categorising it like that doesn't really do it justice. The core of the tale is an ageing witch trying to rid herself of the fire stone, the source of her power that both sustains and torments her. The main characters, though, are London orphans-cum-urchins, who work for an itinerant showman who makes his money, such as it is, from his marionette show, his fantocini. He's also an aspiring magician and former flame of the witch. There's also a young girl, Clara, daughter to a doctor and his wife who lost their other children to cholera and who live in a permanent display of mourning and grief.

Mix all this together and what comes out is a rich tale that brilliantly evokes late-19th-century London, the hopelessness of the orphans, and the tragedy of Clara, without being saccharine or maudlin or straying into the silliness that often accompanies any novel with a fantasy tag. The story starts with the showman being invited to perform for Clara's birthday, upon which he kidnaps her to ransom, using the opportunity to try out some nasty magic on her at the same time. The witch throws a spanner in his plans, summoning him to find a way of the fire stone being stolen from her, the only way she can be free of it.

I won't go on, as you need to discover the rest for yourself.  It's also a good book for advancing readers: my ten-year-old picked it up, browsed it, stole it, and I ended up with an overdue fine from the library as a result.


  1. I hate that phrase though I get it as there could be a really great book hiding under a horrible cover, I'll be honest I'll pick up a book by an unknown author if there's a great cover.
    That was true with my latest "find" of Ten Lords a Leapin~ just had to know what it was about when I saw the cover. I now have a new author and series to enjoy

  2. I totally judge a book by its cover. I feel as though if the cover isn't up to muster then maybe the story isn't either. I don't know, it's only my opinion. But I think the cover is a huge part of selling a book. I do however want to read this!!!