Who's ready for a rambling? Yay, me too! Today I will ramble about a book that has been on my radar and on my bookshelf for a while. It has been part of my backpack of bookness for and I was in the mood for a random book, so I put my hand into the backpack, pulled out this book and read it in two days. The book is Serafina and the Black Cloak, a young adult novel by Robert Beatty. Was it as awesome as the best seller list said it was? I'll let you know, but first as always SPOILERS AHEAD!
Biltmore Estate in the 1890's. Serafina spends most of her time napping during the day and using her unusual talents to catch rats in the extensive house. She is no sure why her father hides hers away so carefully, but figures it has something to do with her strange coloring and the way her bones seemed to be just a bit malformed. She has spent her whole life skulking around and observing the life that she can never have. Her father has also warned her away from the forests that surround the estate, telling her that they are very dangerous. One night while catching rats, Serafina runs into a horrible, rotting apparition that is clothed in a mysterious black cloak. The worst part however is that he has kidnapped a young girl and when Serafina tries to help, the cloak envelopes the girl and she disappears with a scream. The man in the black cloaks see's Serafina and chases her, but she manages to hid using her ability to fit into tiny spaces. She goes up and spies on the house the next morning and learns one of the guests little girls is missing. She tries to explain to her father, but he tells her she has read to many books and must have imagined it. Sera goes exploring on her own and meets up with Braeden, the orphaned nephew of the Vanderbilts, the owners/builders of the Biltmore Estate. The two of them become friends and start to investigate the missing children, as they have come to find out that there were other's missing. Sera tries again to talk to her father and finally learns the truth of her birth. Years ago he had been out in the woods and came across some sort of wild animal. He heard what sounded like cries and when he followed the sound, he came upon a small creature that resembled a human girl. He took her home and eventually got a job at the Biltmore Estate, first as a construction worker, then as a maintenance man, all the while living and hiding himself and his adopted daughter in the house. Much investigation and adventures follow with Sera and Braeden becoming tight friends. Sera starts to suspect a Mr. Thorn, a guest of the Biltmore Estate who seems to mysteriously obtain a new talant every time a child disappears. Sera is chased into the woods and she after running through a mysterious, body less cemetery in an abandoned village she ends up in a green area with a mysterious angel holding a sharp sword. There is also a mountain lion den, which holds a pair of lion cubs that Sera bonds with. She is almost killed when the cubs lion mamma comes back and finds her. More stuff and Sera lures Mr. Thorn away into the glade and gets the lioness to shred him. She takes the cloak and learns it's evil history and how it was responsible for the town being abandon. It tempts her to take it for her self, but she uses the sword to destroy it. Once the cloak is destroyed, all the spirits that were taken are released, including the missing children. Turns out the cloak would absorb the spirits and bestow the life and talent upon the wearer of the cloak. One of the released people is Serafina's mother...actually it's the human half of a being known as a catamount, which is essentially a human/ mountain lion shape shifter. This is where Sera get's her interesting oddness from. The kid's are taken back to their grateful parents with a story of being lost in the woods, as nobody would really believe that they were trapped in a cloak. The Vanderbilts have finally learned of Sera's existence and allow her and her father to continue to live in the basement. Sera and Braeden remain fast friends and the next adventure starts in the next book.
World Building - The book is set in a historical location, but with a fantasy twist. I don't know, the world was really well built...but I had a very hard time reconciling the fake fantasy world with it's non existent elements aka the abandon village and such, with what is a well known and well documented local historical landmark, but more on that later. That being said, the world was well wrought and easy to navigate, especially the nooks and crannies of the big house and some of the cemetery aspects added to the overall story.
Story - This felt like a middle grade story, if that makes sense. This is not a bad thing, sometimes I feel that authors try and get to clever, or to adult when it comes to this age group and this story really feels like it is written for the 9-12 club and in that sense it makes me very happy. I however am not a 9-12 year old and felt that the book over all read a little young. Again not a bad thing for the target group. For the most part the story was complete and engaging. The biggest complaint I had about the story (besides the historical aspect, which will get it's own area) was that I felt like it was trying to do a little to much. We had so many elements to the story, and not all of them were tied together as well as I thought they could be. So I guess overall the story was ok, but needed some work.
Character - This book had an interesting mix of historical figures and fictional characters which for me personally worked with mixed results. As far as individuals go, I found Serafina to be a pretty good character, especially for the target age group. She is feisty, self-sufficient, and not overly confident. She has a lot of angst over her unknown past and reacts as most 9-12 year olds would to the event's that transpire. Everybody else is fairly stock or background so yeah.
Editing - The flow of the book was pretty well done, I was able to follow everything with out too much trouble so that was good. Again, as I mentioned, I felt like there were just too many elements. We had the mysterious girl with all the weird physical stuff, we have the historic estate, we have a mystery involving missing children and a soul eating cloak, we have a mysterious origin story, we have an abandon village, we have a sword wielding stone angel, we have shape shifting cats...we have SO MUCH GOING ON! I feel like I would have preferred if the author just focused on a couple of these elements at a time, especially since it is going to be a series. Also a few things got tossed in with no explanation which always drives me nuts.
History/Fantasy - Ok, so here is where personal opinion comes in...so just remember that...this is just my bloggy opinion. I find that the mixing of history and fantasy is hit or miss. When it is done well, it can be awesome. However more often then not, it just bugs the heck out of me. This book is one of those that bugs me and here is why. We know the entire history of the Biltmore Estate. We know how and when it was built and by who and their whole personal history. Nowhere ever is their an orphaned nephew, nowhere ever is their an abandoned village....in fact the forest around the estate was planted by the builders. There are no local legends of catamounts so pretty much the author just appropriated the setting and a couple of real life people then totally went his own merry way with the rest. I would have much preferred if the author, inspired by the Biltmore Estates, had come up with his own setting and characters...even if they were a homage to the originals. I found it very distracting the liberties the author took with the history of this place and it's builders.
Family - One thing I did very much enjoy about this book was the portrayal of family. We get to see every single type of family imaginable. We see mom, dad and kid, we see family adopting on of their own, we see single parents, we see a gruff guy becoming an amazing dad by happenstance. A shape shifting mountain lion being a mother from afar. To me it just reaffirms the fact that anybody can be family if they are willing to put the effort in. I always love it when a book shows us that a family can be more then just the traditional nuclear family and that as long as you try to love each other, all family is good family.
Bucket List - For all of my whining about the mix of history and fantasy, the Biltmore Estate has now gone on my Literary Bucket List. I only live about 6-8 hours away from this place and it looks amazing. I would love to do my best to fanagle my way into seeing some of the awesome places described in the book. This one is very doable so keep an eye out for a post about it.
Overall Impression - I did not find this book to be my personal cup of tea...that being said, I totally get the appeal of this book, especially in the middle grade crowd that it is targeted for. I will probably grab the second book at some point, but am not chomping at the bit for it. I recommend it to anybody who wants to get their kid to read more and needs a good page turner. I give it 6 out of 10 frayed rope belts. Happy Reading Everybody!