I am a huge fan of Philip Pullman's work, yes most notably his His Dark Materials trilogy, but his whole YA fiction in general surpasses most Author's attempts. He has a knack for coming up with brilliantly told, well structured and complex plots, filled with more twists and turns than you can shake your fist at. Now apparently, unbeknown to me, Count Karlstein (first published in 1982) was Pullman's very first children's and Young Adult novel. I was extremely eager to read it, as you can probably imagine.
Count Karlstein tells the story of Hildi, a maidservant to the Count. The story is set in a little Swiss village and right from the off, we are told of this awful sinister plot to sacrifice his nieces, Charlotte and Lucy. And so sets off an important string of events as Hildi helps the girls escape and go into hiding, for on All Souls Eve, the demon huntsman himself, will show his wrath and feed upon anyone he crosses.
The story itself is told in three parts. The first and third parts are told in Hildi's perspective, whereas part two is told from multiple characters' points of view. This is an interesting way to do things and actually it works quite well, because we can get to see alternate views about the goings on. You can see why originally, Count Karlstein was actually a play, first devised when Pullman was an English teacher.
Of course, every character in the story has their own story arc, not just about Count Karlstein's plan. For example, Hildi's exiled brother, Peter is on the run from the law and he's in hiding at the Jolly Huntsman, their mother's inn. Peter dreams of winning the shooting contest, where he will be declared a free man and no longer have to worry about the police catching up with him.
There's a whole supernatural element to this story, with a demon huntsman and all and though perhaps the story is a little unoriginal, it has a completely new telling; fresh and very easy to follow. It gives this gothic tale a fantasy element and it is done so subtly that it works very well indeed. But perhaps what also is intriguing is the inclusion of Doctor Cadaverezzi and his Cabinet of Wonders. He is a travelling magician of sorts, performing shows for the locals. There just seems to be a whole variety of characters to take a liking too.
Characterisation plays a huge part in this story. Miss Charlotte and Miss Lucy are obviously upper-class children, acutely educated and speak above their young years. Max, Doctor Cadaverezzi's assistant, is perhaps more common and being an orphan means he had to grown up quite quickly and find work. Miss Davenport adds a touch of feminism into the story and reinforces certain values of what is expected such as morals and standards. But no matter who the characters are, Pullman writes with such wit and humour that it is an absorbing read.
And it is this humour that will attract the children. He creates stupid and slapstick policeman that fall foul of the situation and usually find themselves as the victims of some rather funny pranks. The whole book reads like a yarn or fairytale and this is why when read aloud, the world of magic really comes alive.
Although I did love this book, there were certain parts I felt let the book down. The first of which is that I felt the book had so much potential and actually could have been a little longer, giving some story arcs some more action. Doctor Cadaverezzi and his Cabinet of Wonders are introduced as if they are important to the plot, and although there is a twist here, much, much more could have been done. It felt restricted at times, as if Pullman ran out of ideas. His demon huntsman, who is mentioned throughout, only gets minimal inclusion and a more action-orientated ending could have turned this into a great modern fairytale.
And perhaps more surprisingly I found myself shocked at one piece of language. The violence is actually quite toned down here, often coming across more slapstick than actually sinister and Pullman actually creates more of a thriller through tension and situation rather than the actual fights. But late in to the book, as Count Karlstein, he uses the word "slut" when describing Hildi. This was extremely inappropriate, especially when this book is marketed towards older children.
On the whole though, despite some misgivings, I felt Count Karlstein was a gripping tale, lots of psychological tension used to great effect and a whole cast of characters that are appealing and well voiced. When read aloud, Count Karlstein really does come alive and it's a book that will hold many age groups. It is a slightly gothic tale that mixes both tricks and paranormal beliefs, with more traditional behaviour and traditions. I thoroughly enjoyed this and I hope you do too.