Here are two Cybils-nominated fantasy books, one contemporary and one fantasy, one set at Halloween and one at Christmas, that nevertheless have many elements in common, including the exploration of mostly empty mansions and stopping the disappearance of children at the hands of the Fae, though they have different names in each of the books. They are also both refreshingly shorter books, coming in at 225 and 175 pages respectively, something that being the mother of a kid with dyslexia has made me very aware of.
Kate Alice Marshall
Read from library copy.
Eleanor – whose mother always called her Elle – is newly living with her very pregnant Aunt Jenny and Aunt Jenny’s husband Uncle Ben in an old, illogical mansion (including a stairway leading nowhere in the middle of the fireplace) on the edge of the perfectly picturesque town of Eden Eld, where her mother grew up and which she told her never, ever to go to. But since the mysterious event which has left Elle living without her mother, she’s not sure either how much she can trust her mother. The only thing she has left is a book of strange fairy tales called Thirteen Tales of the Grey, a book her mother had read to her frequently but that Eleanor was sure was lost until it appears in her room.
She’s always known not to talk about the things she sees and hears that no one else can – but what about the huge grandfather clock, ticking backwards, that appears outside her room overnight? Then, at school, she meets two children who can also see unseen things, Otto and Pip, both, like her, turning 13 on Halloween. Together, they piece together some of the secrets of Eden Eld – and find out that they are in danger, with only days to save themselves.
This is a contemporary tale filled with gothic and fairy tale dread – the People Who Look Away are major characters in the Thirteen Tales of the Grey, people whose bargains are tricky and whose feet point backward. Creatures from the book, including a flame-eyed dog, a bone crow, and a cat of ashes, also appear both in the storybook and the main narrative. Other important, repeated elements include palindromes and the number 13. Though there isn’t much in the way of actual violence, the creepiness factor is high and the ending is both hardwon and uncertain.
The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher
Walker Books US, 2020.
UK Firefly Press, 2018.
Read from library copy.
In the Victorian era, Seren Rees was orphaned years ago, and after a string of other living arrangements, is traveling by train to stay with her godparents in Wales. She has high hopes of a warm family life and a boy her age, Tomos, to play with – maybe even a Christmas with beautiful decorations and lovely, personal gifts, such as she never got in the orphanage where she spent many years. On the way, late at night in a nearly deserted train station, she’s given a package wrapped in old newspapers by a mysterious man who runs away, promising to be back soon as telling her under no circumstances to open the package.
But the man doesn’t come back, and the mansion at Plas-y-Fran is nearly shut down, leaving just two servants and none of the family Seren was expecting. Naturally, as a bright and inquisitive child, the first thing she does is open the package and, ignoring the dire warnings on the paper inside, put together the clockwork crow in bits that the package contains.
Next, now with the dubious help of a sarcastic and selfish clockwork crow, she decides to find out just what happened to Tomos and why no one will talk about him. She may not know enough to be as frightened of the Family as everyone else is – but she’s also determined not to just abandon the search for a kid her own age. This is a beautifully told tale with a very classic children’s literature feel. It starts off feeling a lot like The Secret Garden before quickly veering off into fantasy territory. Though set just before Christmas, it’s more of a cold, wintery book, with lots of exploring of the empty mansion and learning about her Welsh heritage. It felt like enough Christmas to make it pleasantly seasonal for those who celebrate that, but not so much that it would be oppressive to those who don’t. It would also be an excellent fit for my Winter Fantasy list.
I am very much looking forward to the next book in the series, The Velvet Fox, which is out now in the UK and coming to the US at some point, though I was unable to find a date.