The Cabinet of Wonders
by Marie Rutkoski
This book was partly inspired by a folk tale one of the author's Czech cousins told her, and it also incorporates a couple legends of the Roma—the people you may know as Gypsies—though one of them is more authentic than the other. It is based on a real period of history and includes characters based on such actual historical persons as Queen Elizabeth I of England, Holy Roman Emperor Rudolf II, and famous alchemist John Dee. It takes place largely in the city of Prague, which is real enough that I have actually been there; and both the astronomical clock and the "cabinet of curiosities" featured in this book are based on things that positively existed. But, as the author's note emphasizes at the end of this book, the story in it is pure fiction. This fact is made even more clear by the added remarks from Astrophil, a talking tin spider who could exist only in an imagination as lively and rich as the one behind this book. It would be a treat for Astrophil, and all the magic of this story, to come and live in your imagination too.
Astrophil belongs to Petra Kronos, the tomboyish 12-year-old daughter of Mikal Kronos, who has a gift for metal working. And I don't just mean that he's good at it. He can move metal objects with his mind. He can create intricate devices that move, and think, and talk, and even grow by themselves. Obviously there's magic involved in this, but the alternate history in which the Kronos Chronicles take place is one in which magic plays a significant role in everyday life. Not everyone can do it, and not everyone is comfortable with it, but there's a school for magic in the capital city, and many artisans in the prosperous town of Okno use magic to improve their products. Petra's friend Tomik and his father both have a gift for working in glass, for example; the elder Tomas makes worry vials that people whisper their guilty secrets to before going to sleep, and Tomik makes miniature glass grenades that can unleash lightning, floods, and even swarms of wasps.
But it is Mikal's gift that draws the notice of the king, a handsome youth with a keen mind and an undeniable charm that never quite conceal his underlying cruelty. King Rodolfo hires Mikal to build a magnificent clock in the central square of Prague, one which is not only breathtakingly beautiful but also unimaginably powerful. Then Rodolfo steals Mikal's eyes—either to keep the old man from creating anything as wonderful again, or to use them to see things in a magical new wayand sends the clockmaker home.
Petra vows to steal her father's eyes back. After running away to Prague, she infiltrates the Salamander Castle in the guise of a servant. Her only friends in the castle are a crusty countess whose skin sometimes oozes highly corrosive acid when her emotions are upset, and a Roma pickpocket named Neel, whose family would string Petra up if they knew the kind of danger she was getting him into. With their help she must somehow get past the best security that 16th-century technology and an added layer of magic can provide and plunder the prince's most prized possessions. In doing this she risks much more than her own neck. But she has no choice, thanks in part to a bit of blackmail by an English ambassador (or spy) who is convinced that the clock made by Petra's father is really a weapon that could destroy the whole world. If the prince figures out how to work it before she can destroy the clock's innermost heart, no one will be safe from the power of a prince so mad for power that he had his own eyes gouged out in order to see the world through the eyes of Mikal Kronos....
Not to be confused with a similarly titled book by Renee Dodd, this book begins the Kronos Chronicles, a magical series that continues with The Celestial Globe and The Jewel of the Kalderash. For more information about this promising young author, visit her website.
St. Louis, USA
Recommended Age: 12+
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