This book was sent to me by the publisher, Bloomsbury, at no cost. I believe it comes out in Australia at the start of September; RRP $14.99.
I heard about this book from Tansy, who adored it, so when I got to a chance to review it I was pretty stoked. But a thing I did not realise: this is a sequel! When I read the first chapter or so I wasn’t sure whether Burgis was doing something quite ambitious for this middle grade/ YA book (the protagonist is 13: I don’t know how to classify books for younger readers) – that is, leaping right into the story and then adding a bit of background information. Then I found out that before this is The Dragon with a Chocolate Heart, and it made a bit more sense. That said, I think that the narrators are different in the two books, and obviously I haven’t read the first but I still managed to read and love this book… so it does stand by itself.
Silke is 13 and determined to write her own story of her life, with herself as heroine not victim. She and her brother have been on their own since their parents were captured or killed as the family were fleeing their homeland some years ago. Most recently, Silke has been making herself useful to the chocolate makers at The Chocolate Heart, who have employed her best friend who is usually in human form but is actually a dragon (it’s complicated). She’s waitressing, and telling stories both orally and via broadsheet. But then she gets a job from the crown princess when the neighbouring fairy royalty, who have been living underground for a century, suddenly come for a visit. Silke has the chance to prove herself but of course things won’t go as smoothly as one might hope…
There’s a lot to like here. The action moves quickly, but there’s still lovely moments of character development. And the characters are great: mostly girls and women, with genuine diversity of character. The crown princess might be well loved, but/and she’s also a ruthless politician when necessary. The younger princess feels overshadowed; the chocolate apprentice is true to her dragon heritage; the adult women are sometimes compassionate, sometimes impatient, sometimes ignorant. The male characters are also diverse – Silke’s older brother is, basically, an older brother; sometimes the men are greedy, sometimes loving. Silke herself is basically creating herself as she goes along, which is probably her most intriguing characteristic: after early trauma she is determined not to have her life written for her. And so she puts on an act – which is sometimes a good thing, and sometimes not, and that’s acknowledged by the text.
As for the action: it’s clear from early on that the arrival of the fairies isn’t going to be the wondrous thing that the population might hope. It takes some unexpected turns, much like Silke learning the ins and outs of the servants’ passageways within the castle. The fairies have a bit less development than some other characters, but it does all work well as a narrative.
I really enjoyed this and look forward to giving it to the younger readers in my life.
On Galactic Suburbia a few weeks ago, Tansy mentioned that she was reading this anthology and that the first story had lots of references to rock and roll – much more my thing than hers. And then I saw Stephanie Burgis, one of the editors, talking about it on Twitter and, well, I managed to get myself a review copy. Whoo!
Over here at Book Smugglers you can find out how this anthology came together; basically, someone mentioned the underwater ballroom folly on Twitter, and BOOM.
Anyway, I quickly read the first story, and not only is it about rock music but it’s specifically about Robert Plant, of Led Zeppelin, which is only my favourite band ever AND I was about to go see Plant actually perform with his new(er) band, the Sensational Space Shifters. So I was in delighted stitches at all of the Led Zeppelin references throughout the story and basically that one piece is worth this entire anthology happening. But maybe that’s my particular bias shining through. Whatever.
The rest of the stories are quite different, with some not even being set on Earth; sometimes there’s magic, sometimes not; some are romantic, some are crime-solving, some are coming-of-age. The underwater ballroom is used quite differently, as you would expect, although it is pretty much central in all of the stories. It’s an enormously fun set of stories. Sometimes a themed anthology gets wearisome; that doesn’t happen here. I can definitely recommend it; it’s got a fairly diverse set of characters, too, which I liked. Give it to the older teen in your life who is getting impatient with everyday fantasy and fairy stories. And read it yourself, of course.
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This book was provided by the publisher at no cost.
The important thing to know about this book before reading it is that it is influenced by opera – eighteenth century opera, no less. So if noble ladies with fair arms and negligees, dramatic love affairs, and sinister secret societies – with generous serves of lavish description – is not your cup of tea, then this novel is not for you. And that’s ok; just pass it by, or pass it on.
The novel is set on the real-life estate of the Esterhazys, which I had to look up to check its historical authenticity. The Prince really did employ Haydn to work there, as depicted in the story, so it’s intriguing to know that it’s based on, or at least using, some aspects of fact (and the ruler at the time was Marie Theresa – Marie Antoinette’s mother. Can’t get away from those revolutions.)
There’s lots of different narrators and a few different narrative threads that weave through this story. There’s the musico (indelicately, a castrato), the young widow, the cast-off husband, the singers, the alchemists… and ultimately everything comes together. I quite liked the young widow, who was really the focus overall; she was sympathetic and made sense. Some of the others were a bit more opera-character-ish: amusing but less believable. Also less believable was the central (although not completely overwhelming) love story; not that the two people involved were unlikely, just the way it played out.
Overall this is a well-paced, fairly light read with some charming, and some dastardly, characters. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and it all only happens over a week or so, so it doesn’t have a chance to get bogged down.