Once upon a time, I was studying in Germany and thought it would be a good idea to try to learn a language I couldn’t learn at my own college. I picked Czech. I made very little headway with it, but I did make some good friends in class and joined the class trip to Prague, a beautiful city.
Renaissance Bohemia. Petra Kronos, aged about 14, is expecting her father from Prague, where he has been working on a large and beautiful clock for Prince Rodolfo. I would guess it’s around 1552 although the story doesn’t say so because we are starting with the magical alternate history of the real astronomical Orloj still functioning in Prague. Mikal Kronos, Petra’s father, has a shop where he sells animated tin creatures – not wind-up toys, but real living beings that think, talk, dream, and eat – in their case brassica oil. Petra’s companion is a small tin spider named Astrophil which her father made for her. Her father is returned in a cart, however, with both of his beautiful silver eyes gouged out. Petra is outraged and, with the help of her magically gifted friend Tomik Stakan runs away to Prague to get her father’s eyes back. (Some other magician has enchanted them so that the prince can use them himself). Alone in Prague, she meets a Romany boy named Neel. Despite the fact that he was just trying to rob her, she befriends him, and learns the legends of his tribe’s history and gifts. Soon Petra is up to her own silver eyeballs in intrigue. She obtains a post in the castle with Countess Iris and her dyeworks near the Thinker’s Wing and comes to the attention of John Dee, ambassador, magician and spy. Close up, Prince Rodolfo is even more dangerous than Petra had already known him to be – can she accomplish her mission and get back home in one piece? Petra is delightfully prickly, emancipated, brave, and prone to getting into scrapes. I wished in this book that Tomik had played a larger role, as he drops out for most of the book after helping Petra set off for Prague. (He does play a much larger role in book 2.) I loved the combination of real historical information with fantasy and rollicking adventure. Some dark deeds of the prince’s are revealed that make this potentially too scary for younger or sensitive kids, but there is as of yet only the barest hint of possible future romance. This is good for boys and girls, right on target at the middle grade through middle school, as well as for those of us older people who still enjoy reading fantasy written for children.