I was surprised by how much I enjoyed Fire Spell. Firstly, it's set in Victorian England - and it's written by an American writer. But it's perfectly written - in the very humble endnote, Schlitz thanks the person who helped her get the language and tone right, and I think that almost impresses me more than anything else in this book. It is a completely unpretentious, emotionally true story of three children and a fire opal - a magical stone that gives both great power and great pain to its bearer.
In London, 1860: Clara celebrates her twelfth birthday with a puppet show, presided over by sinister puppetmaster Grisini, assisted by his two apprentices. Clara is lonely and eager to befriend Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, but things don't go as she expects. Grisini traps her in the form of a marionette - and then promptly goes missing.
The machinations of Grisini, and his old nemesis - the wielder of the fire opal, a powerful witch named Cassandra - take Lizzie Rose and Parsefall far north, where great danger awaits.
The exposition of our protagonists' backstories and motivations are carefully unfolded - why Clara is lonely, why Lizzie Rose acts like a lady, why Parsefall is a thief. The timing and transitions are handled capably and with finesse. Although I read this in bursts over a longer time than usual (a sure recipe for a dragging read in all senses), I was pleasantly surprised that I never felt it lost any momentum. The plot wasn't convoluted, but neither was it predictable: in some ways, it has a flavour of Diana Wynne Jones' imagination (although without the zaniness that characterises her work), with a gothic-ish, Dickensian feel. If you like Un Lun Dun, you'll like Fire Spell.
Fire Spell is a self-contained standalone book. It doesn't, perhaps, stay with you after you finish it, but while you're reading, you're totally immersed in the warmth of the characters, the suspense of the story, and the gentle writing style. Confident younger readers (9+) could easily manage it, but older readers should enjoy it, too. I did. I'm much older than 11 XD