I was immediately drawn into this middle-grade, modern day fairy tale about a curious girl, with a highly logical, investigative mind, who didn’t realize how brave she was and a marvelous, ageless, young boy who, many decades ago, had been charged by the wizards with the task of finding the one person who could save the world from the destructive intentions of the evil snow queen.
Ophelia Whittard, 11, years old, and her older sister, Alice, are temporarily living in a snow covered city, while their father works at a museum there preparing a special sword exhibit. He is an expert on swords. Their mother, once a writer of scary books, has recently died, and they are all feeling her absence very deeply.
While wandering the museum, Ophelia discovers a hidden room. Inside that locked room, she discovers a young boy. He communicates with her through the keyhole in the door and tells her that when he was 12 years old, the wizards had given him a magic sword and told him to journey the world looking for the one person who could save the world. He also tells her that he needs her help to do this. He gives her a set of instructions to follow, and although she protests that she is much too young and unfit for the task, she does try to help him. She learns that on his journey, he met a young king who befriended him and commanded his allegiance and friendship. The years passed uneventfully, until one day the king marries the snow queen, unaware that she is evil. She convinces the king to lock the marvelous boy away in a specially constructed room, until the magic charm that protected him from her evil wore off. Then she had secret plans to kill him. She told the king that he disturbed her sleep because his hair never needed to be cut, and he never grew bigger in any way. The boy was timeless; he remained the same age. She was cruel and deceived the king into betraying his friend. The snow queen took the boy’s magic sword and vowed to destroy it.
The boy who has no name, for the wizards took it from him, begs Ophelia to help him. He has been locked away for decades but time is running out to save the world. She must hurry and find out how much time they actually have left by reading the number on the bottom of the huge Wintertide Clock, and she must find a series of keys to free him and defeat the queen. She will encounter great danger.
In the meantime, Miss Kaminski, the curator of the museum seems strange to Ophelia. She seems to prefer her sister Alice to her, and she begins to give Alice very wonderful gifts, promising her greater beauty than she already has. Alice is flattered and lonely after her mother’s death and she succumbs to the phony kindness of the curator who really only wants to take her youth from her so she can remain young. Miss Kaminski frightens Ophelia. Is she dangerous?
Ophelia finds that she cares about the marvelous boy, and when she visits him again, he sends her on a series of adventurous assignments. In spite of the danger, she overcomes her fear and always comes through. Does she save the world? What happens to the boy? Will they meet again? Is there a sequel in the works?
The book is alternately charming and disarming, because it gets quite gruesome and could be very scary for some younger readers. It is not for the faint of heart. For some children, perhaps an adult should preview it first to address any issues that might concern a more sensitive child, or it should be a joint effort of parent and child. While the prose is toned down for the younger reader, the content sometimes seemed too bizarre for anything but a more mature reader.
Death is a huge part of the narrative, and although not always in a threatening way, it is still a clear and present danger. Magical things happen, there are wizards, statues that come to life, ghosts appear, stone animals attack, injuries occur, and rooms and their contents are not always in the same place. There are some gruesome moments that could be very unsettling for some children, like the discussion about the loss one feels over the death of a parent or scary, like the story of how the boy loses one of his fingers, or the frequent telling of lies, or a machine that sucks out the soul of a child leaving just the barest spirit of them to roam the halls of the museum as the ghosts of little girls, or little boys locked away for years and threatened with death. However, most of the more frightening parts will be obviously imaginary and not real, to the young reader, but never-the-less, a more sensitive child should beware.
There are some words that might give a the reader some pause, like “weir”, a word used more in the United Kingdom and Australia, birthplace and homeland of the author, or bhoot, a word found in ancient texts on the Indian Subcontinent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) or gjenganger, a term from Scandinavian folklore.
In some cases, there was a sentence or two that was not as well constructed as the rest, and it clouded the flow of the narrative. Even I, an adult reader, had to reread some parts to try and figure out what the author was trying to say. However, overall, this is a book that crosses gender lines and is an interesting addition to the fairy tale genre for both boys and girls.
The book held my attention, and I believe it will give children the message that they don’t have to be perfect to accomplish something good. Even having asthma, wearing eyeglasses, being knock-kneed and very young, you can still be curious and brave and do the right thing; you can overcome obstacles and succeed. So don’t judge a book by its cover, because underneath there could be a hero lurking, or perhaps even a villain, and the look of the “thing” does not always tell the whole story.
The cover picture of the two main characters is cartoon like with just the right amount of mystery in it and the black and white illustrations separating the three separate parts of the book, do not distract from the story, but rather lead the reader onward.
This book deals with many subjects that parents can use to engage their children in conversation and help them deal with the realities of life and the unrealistic fears they might have, such as: esteem, handicaps, outward appearance vs inward beauty, bravery and compassion, the supernatural and magic.
Foxlee has written two previous young adult novels. This is her first middle-grade venture. Perhaps that is why I sometimes felt it seemed too young or immature for the older range the book is geared to, and in some ways, too mature for the younger range. There was a romantic undertone which I found possibly inappropriate.