Nov 7, 2012

Fire Spell (aka Splendors and Glooms) by Laura Amy Schlitz

(I can’t decide which of these two lovely covers I like the most.)

Set in 1860, Fire Spell (published in the US as Splendors and Glooms) tells the story of Clara Wintermute, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall. Although these three children’s backgrounds couldn’t be more different, their lives become intertwined. Clara Wintermute is the only surviving child of a prosperous family of five: ever since her siblings died in a cholera outbreak, she has lived in a house of darkness and silence, where observing elaborate Victorian mourning rituals for The Others (as Clara privately calls them) is a central part of everyday life. Every Christmas, birthday, holiday or special day, Clara has to spend time in the family mausoleum at Kensal Green. Clara resents that the ghosts of her siblings haunt her life to such an extent, and naturally she feels incredibly guilty for this resentment.

Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, on the other hand, are orphans: they’re both apprentices to Gaspare Grisini, a marionette artist, and they meet Clara when they’re hired to put on a show at her twelfth birthday party. But shortly after the party, Clara goes missing, and Lizzie Rose and Parsefall begin to suspect Grisini of foul play. Add a backstory about an enchanted ruby stone, a witch who once knew Grisini, Dickensian detail about the two orphan’s lives, and a masterful conflation of subplots, and you have Fire Spell in a nutshell.

Let us count how many elements that I love Fire Spell has:an atmospheric but unromanticised Victorian setting, check. Girls being awesome, check. Marionettes, with all their Gothic associations and creepytastic potential, check. A manor house in the Lake District at Christmastime, wonderfully named Strachan’s Ghyll? Check. A sympathetic “evil witch”, with motivations that actually make sense and whose backstory turns her into a real human being? Check. Complex characterisation, check. And last but not least, lovely, vivid prose that is wonderfully descriptive but never overdone – check. Is it any wonder, then, that I enjoyed Fire Spell so much?

Laura Amy Schlitz’s writing put me in mind of Joan Aiken’s: the tone is quite a bit different, less overtly humorous though still very warm, but I nevertheless suspect that fans of the Wolves Chronicles will find much to enjoy in this novel. And now for a more unlikely comparison: I was at times reminded of Eva Ibbotson, even though stylistically she and Laura Amy Schlitz couldn’t be more different. But both have in common the fact that they write about even the nastiest characters with humanity and regard, which is something I really appreciate.

Also, I can’t resist pointing out that Fire Spell makes for a nice companion to Dodger, which as you might remember I read earlier this year. If you’re in the mood for historical children’s fiction that makes wonderful narrative use of its Victorian setting while acknowledging and not glossing over the inequalities of the period, you could do a lot worse than these two novels.

Fire Spell is a historical fantasy, but somewhat to my surprise the fantasy elements were almost my least favourite thing about it. There’s nothing wrong with them, but I was far more interested in the characterisation and in Clara, Lizzie Rose and Parsefall’s relationships. The tie between the last two, and the way grumpy Parsefall comes to acknowledge its importance, was wonderful to see. And slowly Clara is drawn into this siblinghood, which is the result of a deliberate choice rather than of birth but certainly not any less solid for it.

In addition to this, Clara’s journey involves discovering and owning her passion, and inviting her parents to open their eyes and see the daughter they still have rather than only the children they have lost. In addition to being a perfect Gothic autumn read, Fire Spell is a moving story about family, grief, survivor’s guilt, and slowly letting go of the past.

They read it too: The Book Smugglers, Good Books and Good Wine, Charlotte’s Library, The Indextrious Reader


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. Perfect timing with this since I finished reading it last night! I'm with you, I can't decide which cover I prefer either, I love them both.

    I completely agree with all things wonderful about this book. I probably wouldn't have picked it up if it didn't have the fantasy elements, but you're right, they aren't what really made the story--that was the characters.

    Also thank you for the read-alike suggestions for Dodger and Wolves of Willoughby! Added both to my TBR. =)

  2. Hooray! I am reading War and Peace right now but after I finish with that I will need something that moves along a bit more quickly. And this looks perfect AND it is published by Candlewick Press, whom I love. Perfect!

    (I like the British cover better but the American title.)

  3. Well that sounds like a slam dunk. :)

  4. Ooh, it sounds just my kind of book. I've been a fan of Laura Amy Schultz for a while, I love Joan Aiken, I love Eva Ibbotson, I love historical fantasy, I think I must be going to love this book! thank you so much for the recommendation :)

  5. Going through my children's books, as I have been lately, always makes me wish there were more like them. And then this post. Such good timing.

  6. I had not heard of this book, but it's interesting to me that you loved the bits f characterization and relationships over the magical bits. I also know that you loved this one because you subtly compared it to your beloved Ibbotson's work. I need to find this one for sure. Wonderful review today, Anna!

  7. I really loved A Drowned Maiden's Hair, and it totally surprised me. Had never heard of Schlitz before. Now I'm looking forward to this, fantasy or no fantasy.

  8. Kelly, I do think you'll enjoy it!

    Heidi: I'm looking forward to your review! And do seek out Dodger and the wonderful Joan Aiken.

    Jenny: Good luck with W&P, and I hope you'll enjoy this afterwards! I hadn't realised this was published by Candlewick in the US. They do publish the best books.

    Tasha: Embarrassing confession time: I had to google that :P Clearly my knowledge of sports metaphors leaves much to be desired.

    Kate Forsyth: You're most welcome! I hope you enjoy it.

    Jeanne: I'm glad to hear that! The book has a classic feel that I really appreciated.

    Zibilee: Clearly you know me well :P

    Kiirstin: I remember first hearing about that book on Darla's blog ages and ages ago! I definitely need to find it.

  9. I'd never heard of this one, but now I know I *must* have it!

    I love what you said about evil witches. And I know I already mentioned the story "A Delicate Architecture" to you, but I can't stop myself from mentioning it again--this story just got under my skin. I ADORED this story for exactly the reason you mentioned about the witch in this story.

  10. I read about this in Shelf Awareness and it sounds like my sort of thing! I am currently reading Dodger. The read is going slower than I expected, but I think that's the fault of my work schedule, not the book. Hoping to finish it tonight so I can start FARTHING!!

  11. Debi: It's just been released a few months ago, and sadly it doesn't seem to have gotten as much attention as some other titles (in my corner of the bookish world, at least). I so have to get my hands on Troll's Eye View!

    Aarti: I definitely do think it's your sort of think! Also, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on Dodger. I don't think it's Pterry at his best by any means, but I still really enjoyed it.

  12. I'm going to review this soon, for a Book section feature in an Irish website for children. I can't wait to read it!

  13. Now see this is one I more than likely have to check out but I honestly like the original publication title/cover over the US one. Don't get me wrong, they both hold their own but FIRE SPELL for some reason just captured my attention more adequately. Thanks for the share...happy reading!


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