My reading of the 2012 Cybils middle grade sf/f shortlist continues with this one… next up will be Jasper Fforde’s The Last Dragonslayer. The furor around The One and Only Ivan from it winning the Newbery has finally died down enough for me to put my hands on it, and then I will have read them all.
Cabinet of Earths by Anne Nesbet.
The introduction… during World War II, a young boy who lives with his beautiful grandmother watches her instantly tire of life as she learns that one of her sons has killed the other. She takes from the Cabinet her bottle of Earth and opens it. Dark grains rush into her and she ages and dies before his eyes, leaving the boy as Keeper of the Cabinet. In our time, Maya and her extremely charismatic five-year-old brother James are moving to Paris with their parents for a year, to celebrate her mother being (hopefully) cancer-free. Maya is not at all happy about this; she doesn’t speak French or make friends easily and just wanted a return to normalcy. Normal is far from what she gets, however, as the creepily handsome man who introduces himself to the children on their first day turns out to be associated with the scientific group which arranged to bring her father over. They also meet Cousin Louise, a woman so drab that waiters don’t even notice her at restaurants. Maya finds strange old photographs showing glowing, three-dimensional children hidden in their apartment, and finds salamanders that only she can see moving on things like door knockers around the city. Soon Maya and the one friend she makes at school, Valko, are tangled in an adventure involving the intersection of magic and science, discussing the ancient (and real) conflict between scientists Fourtnoy and Lavosier. While there’s plenty of danger, there’s also deep thinking to be had around the value of charisma, popularity and immortality. Maya has some very tough choices to make, where what seems right and what will be good for those she loves are not necessarily the same thing. There are shades of C.S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew in the depth of Maya’s worry for her mother, with a more nuanced outcome (heresy though it be to say this given my family’s deep loyalty to Lewis.) Nesbet does all this with the flavor of Paris and keeping firmly in the bounds of what’s appropriate for middle grade students. In short, this is a deeply impressive book, good for both the children it was written for and adult fans of children’s fantasy.