The premise: a theatre set in NoParticularTime, inhabited by every character of every play, who come on stage to perform when their scene is announced. Also inhabited by appropriate backstage personnel, and Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, an inappropriate foundling who loves the theatre (her home) with a passion and who is followed around by the Midsummer Night’s Dream fairies, who are as crude and rambunctious and loyal and awesome as (William) Shakespeare would have wanted. Also, two love interests. With this sort of set-up it would have been hard for me not to be completely in love. Happily, Mantchev does not disappoint.
Beatrice – sorry, Bertie – is a wonderful heroine, defiant and strong-willed, fiercely loyal and amusingly devious. She causes all sorts of mischief in and around the theatre – enough that eventually, she might have to leave, unless she can prove herself. This is a coming of age story, with Bertie discovering her gifts and talents and likes and dislikes, as well as dealing with how other people react to her and act on their own. She faces loss – new and old – and disappointment, confusion (especially about love) and revelation, and the glory of strong and true friendship. Basically, it’s all the good and bittersweet bits of the classic coming of age, in a marvellous and enchanting package.
I loved the Theatre Illuminata. I love the way the scene changes work, I love the irascible backstage types and their petty feuds. I was delighted by how Mantchev took mostly Shakespeare’s characters and used them on stage but also imagined them as people outside of their scenes (much like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern does, without the loopy philosophising and dialogue…). The characters from Hamlet were especially amusing, playing on and reflecting so many of the tensions that can easily be imagined from the play itself, and that might arise from the people playing those characters day in, day out. It’s just really clever. And then there’s the fairies: Cobweb, Mustardseed, Moth, and Peaseblossom. Pulling hair, mooning important people, eating all the cake… it’s all in a day’s work, really, and there better be cake after, too. Oh, and Ariel. I am not a huge fan of The Tempest, but I’ve read and seen it; I loved Dan Simmons’ play on Caliban in Ilium and Olympos… but I’ll never be able to see Ariel in the same light again. (Huh; this connects with Obernewtyn, by Isobelle Carmody, which I’ve also just read. Interesting.)
How much did I love this book? I’ve just ordered books 2 and 3. I HAVE to know what happens.
Slight spoiler: One thing bugged me. She’s all hung up about her mother, and wanting to find her mother, but she doesn’t seem worried about her father until right near the end. This is a girl who’s grown up around Shakespeare, where half the time it’s the mother who is missing, but the father is present. Surely, when she knows neither, she should be curious about both? Also, growing up around those stories, shouldn’t she be wanting to know the romantic story of how they met?