Tuesday, December 15, 2015

A Box of Gargoyles

A Box of Gargoyles
by Anne Nesbet
Recommended Ages: 12+

I came across this sequel to The Cabinet of Earths, which I haven't read at this time, in the bargain section of a new-and-used bookstore I spotted while walking my parents' dog during an unplanned road trip. I literally ran straight into the store, grabbed this book, bought it and ran out without pausing to look around. It's funny how these little strokes of luck happen when you're not looking for them. After a dry spell in terms of finding books I really liked, this one hit me with a fascinating combination of creepy magic, cultural richness, and a neatly crafted character study of adolescent friendship and family ties. Quirky, surprising, laced with crisp dialogue and the charming scenery of Paris, it was, if not the best book I have read this year, by far the most enjoyable of the way-too-many books I was attempting to read at the time.

In the previous book, which (I stress again) I have yet to read, 12-year-old Maya Davidson coped with her mother's serious illness, her family's sudden move from California to France, and trying to fit into a school where everybody speaks a language she doesn't know... not to mention her adorable little brother's abduction by a distantly related wizard named Henri de Fourcroy. This purple-eyed character has stayed young and handsome for 100 years by something to do with a cabinet of earths and something to do with draining the charm of out of children like five-year-old James. But that's all behind Maya now, right?

Well, no. In spite of being vanquished, Fourcroy is only mostly dead. Part of him lives on in the stone wall of the Bulgarian embassy where Maya's best friend, the cheerful and scientifically inclined Valko, lives with his diplomat parents. Another part of Fourcroy is reaching out to Maya from beyond the grave, using letters on enchanted paper and other talismans to compel her to do his evil bidding. And though Maya knows bringing back Fourcroy will mean the end of her, she can't help it thanks to a binding magic that makes her every act of resistance but another step down the "clockwork path" he has set her on.

While the now 13-year-old girl tries to find some wiggle room to escape a nasty fate, waves of strangeness are breaking out in the middle of Paris, spreading twice as far every 137 hours and threatening to envelop the world in chaos. Everything from baked goods to major landmarks is changing shape. Mobs of mesmerized women are bursting forth in song around Maya, singing Bulgarian lyrics that threaten to eat her heart. A shadow in vaguely human form keeps chasing her. And a pair of disturbingly mobile gargoyles have entrusted their egg to her, a responsibility she feels deeply although the egg is also connected somehow with Fourcroy's dastardly plan.

Besides all this, Valko may be taken from her by his scary grandmother, the one with the mole on her face who thinks he is losing touch with his Bulgarianness. Viktor Krum! What will Maya do?

What she does is actually a little mind-blowing. The setting where it happens is delightful in every detail, right down to a dinner party in which a historian of yogurt debates the finer points of vampires with a scatter-brained American authoress. (Fans of bare-chested vampires should be advised, that chapter isn't kind to them.) This is the kind of magic I have hoped to find more of, ever since I started writing book reviews under the motto, "If you like J. K. Rowling, you may also like..." Magic-starved Potterheads, head this way!

Nesbet, a California-based author who also teaches Russian literature and the history of film, has also written a recent book titled The Wrinkled Crown. It too shows signs of being a good pick for kids of all ages looking for a little magic.

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