Top critical review
Haunting, but not gripping.
on 10 June 2013
"The witch burned ..." opens the prologue, drawing the reader in, and ending enticingly: "The fire opal flashed like the eye of a phoenix."
Meanwhile, it's 1860, and in the Dickensian streets of London, Clara Wintermute is spellbound by the work of some puppeteers she watches in the park. The fantoccini trio, Grisini the boss, Parsefall and Lizzie Rose his two ragged child assistants, are invited to perform in Clara Wintermute's house for her 12th birthday, but soon after Clara disappears. It will be up to Parsefall and Lizzie Rose to discover her whereabouts, and pit their wits against evil and magic in order to free her.
The first half of the novel takes us deep into the worlds of Parsefall and Lizzie Rose; we learn about their lives gradually through their dreams, and confessions to each other: and will learn that death and violence has overshadowed their childhood. Clara may be rich, but death has similarly stalked her family's life. Grisini is sinister as a figure with power over the children in his care, but even he is held in terrible thrall by the witch, Cassandra, and her fire opal.
Fire Spell is an unexpected fantasy, in that the magical elements are few and far between, and when they do occur are of a macabre nature. "Good" magic, if it exists here, comes from the children; otherwise, it is an agent for pain, bloodshed and control. The atmosphere of the novel is gloomy, and grimy, perfectly in sync with the era in which it is set: the "gothic twist" comparison with Tim Burton certainly rings true.
Yet, I found the story for the first half at least, to be overly detailed and slow. I was impatient for something to happen. Once the two children made their way to Strachan's Ghyll, the domain of the witch, things became more interesting, although even then the novel was in no hurry to disclose its secrets. The oddness and complexity of the story should be more than enough to hold a reader's attention, and I don't really know why I found it such a chore to finish.
Schlitz is a good writer, able to create depth and subtlety with her prose; she also does something different with her fantasy, being daring enough to fill it with darkness, and creating light from the awkward relationship that develops between the 3 children. Hopefully the young readers this book is aimed at will connect with the characters, live with them through the story, and not experience any of the issues that I did. This is one of those novels I wish I'd liked more and is probably better than my rating suggests.