The Tears of the Salamander
by Peter Dickinson
Recommended Age: 14+
I have long enjoyed the books of Mr. Dickinson’s wife Robin McKinley. Until now, I have never read anything by Dickinson himself, though his titles include the winners of 2 Carnegie Medals, 2 Whitbread Awards, 4 ALA Best Book for Young Adults awards, a Michael L. Printz Honor Book, a Mythopoeic Society Fantasy Award, and other honors. His books include The Ropemaker, Eva, AK, A Bone from a Dry Sea, and many other enticing fantasy titles. I believe The Tears of the Salamander to be the best book I have read since The Half-Blood Prince. [EDIT: I wrote this review around the end of 2005.] So, my discovery of Peter Dickinson’s writing has been both late and wonderful.
In this amazingly original and unique fantasy, the main character is a baker’s son and cathedral choir boy from a northern city in medieval Italy. Alfredo loves music, loves to tend the fires in his father’s oven, and loves his family. His life is completely happy until a terrible fire changes everything. Suddenly, he has no one in the world except a rich uncle who has never laid eyes on him since his christening. But now, Uncle Giorgio comes to take young Alfredo away with him to his mansion on the slopes of an active volcano in Sicily.
Uncle Giorgio, himself seriously ill, gives Alfredo a new name and begins to prepare him for his inheritance. But it is a strange and terrible legacy, involving vast powers over the fires of Mount Etna, dreadful sorceries, and monstrous cruelty. To be sure, Giorgio is kind to Alfredo – perhaps suspiciously so. But toward his dumb maidservant, to his idiot son, and to an enslaved creature from the fiery heart of the mountain, Giorgio shows nothing but cold and deadly hatred.
As Giorgio begins to teach Alfredo about his great works of alchemy, the boy cleverly unravels the truth about his family, and about his uncle’s plans. Suddenly, his life becomes a high-tension race to take a terrible vengeance, and any false step can mean doom for all.
For a tale that weaves horror, magic, love, hate, music, religion, and pulse-quickening suspense, you won’t find any better than this book. I would love to say something like, “If you loved ____, you have to read this!” But I am at a loss for another book to compare to The Tears of the Salamander. So I’ll make it simple and just say, “You have to read this!”
P.S. – I looked up Peter Dickinson’s official website, and among the goodies there I found an essay explaining why children should be allowed to read stuff that adults consider to be “rubbish” – i.e., having no artistic or instructional value. This is exactly what I’ve been talking about for years!