Be still my heart. The very moment that I had heard of Splendors And Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, I knew I absolutely had to read it at all costs. You know how certain books just kind of call to you, they contain certain aspects that culminate in the very most-you sort of book there is? Splendors And Glooms is chock full of tropes that I cannot help but be partial to. As you know I am partial to orphans. I am partial to magic. I am, indeed, incredibly partial to plucky children, the sort who fill the pages of my favorite middle grade books. Splendors And Glooms definitely succeeds in every single aspect that initially attracted me to it.
How many of you read Charles Dickens and actually liked him? I hope it’s not just me. Splendors And Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz takes place in what seems like Dickensian London. The book opens with a rather mysterious prologue featuring two dualing magicians, two people who absolutely do not like each other, yet they are not the main characters. After the prologue we dive right into a different struggle, that of Clara Wintermute. Clara’s life, while privileged, is not easy. You see, her brothers and sisters died of cholera when she was very young, leaving Clara an only child. Her parents, the Doctor and Mrs. Wintermute still grieve the lost children, often at Clara’s expense, making holidays completely suck because they have to go visit the dreary Kensal Green graveyard. When Clara happens upon a puppet show in the park, she decides that she desperately wants them at her birthday party, if only for a little bit of lightness on an otherwise dreary day. Two of the puppeteers are children — Lizzie Rose and Parsefall, orphans who are in the care of Grisini who is totally evil, y’all. Lizzie Rose tries her best to be a lady, whereas Parsefall is a bit of a cutpurse and aspires to be a member of the Royal Marionettes company. The lives of the three children are about to intertwine in a rather magical, adventurous twist.
After reading Splendors and Glooms, I have decided that I want to read more books by Laura Amy Schlitz. As I say in every single one of my reviews ever, characterization is so important to me. I prefer dynamic characters who grow and learn something about themselves along the way. Clara is a girl who has had to put away her loud laughs, who has had to follow mannerisms right down to the most minute details to make up for the loss of her siblings. When something awful and magical happens to her, she learns a lesson about life and about really, truly living that I found valuable and subtle.
Lizzie Rose is the other female main character and is a bit older than both Clara and Parsefall. She’s totally the mother hen type and not exactly a risk taker. Lizzie Rose is the sort of girl who goes along with whatever her superiors want her to do, even if it’s at her detriment. For example when her guardian Grisini goes away, she finds herself acting as an unpaid maid at the boarding house where she and Parsefall live, rather than working at the show, she lives as a drudge. As the story goes on, we see Lizzie Rose begin to really believe in herself and gain a stolid sort of courage. I know I am always one for when characters find their own voices.
The character that I had to work at the most to like in Laura Amy Schlitz’s Splendors And Glooms and consequently the one that I ended up falling in an I WANT TO ADOPT YOU RIGHT NOW way was Parsefall. You guys this kid is so prickly. He’s very rude to Lizzie Rose when she has shown him nothing but love. He steals. He doesn’t hold up his end of chores. He’s dirty. He has a foul mouth. But at the same time, he has ambition. He is courageous. Parsefall is the sort of character who ends up surprising you in the very best possible way at the very end, and also the character who ended up being my very favorite, for reasons you will see when you take a few days to read this marvelous middle grade book.
Splendors And Glooms is one of those books that is so perfectly set that as you read it, you can feel yourself immersed little by little into the world until you are completely submerged. It is set in Dickensian London, for the most part. The house of the Wintermutes is elaborate and warm, with servants for their every need. Yet, the Wintermute household has a tinge of the macabre, as there are relics of Clara’s dead siblings all over the place and it’s almost like a shrine. We then contrast that with the dingy boarding house that Parsefall and Lizzie Rose live in. Their boarding house is tight and cramped. It is dirty and reminds me of a hoarder’s house. There are dogs everywhere. It’s not hard to picture Lizzie Rose and Parsefall walking the same grimy streets as Pip or Tiny Tim Cratchit. Laura Amy Schlitz includes details right down to the sorts of foods people ate back then — like poor people not getting any meat. Plus, we get a glimpse of the working houses, where they’d basically toss poor people and make them work in super poor conditions. I loved this attention to detail and it added a strong sense of place for me as a reader.
For me, Splendors And Glooms started pretty strongly as I got the general lay of the story. Plus the prologue is intense which drew me in. I was never bored while reading Splendors And Glooms nor was I like goodness I hope this goes much more faster. It’s not exactly the type of book you breeze through in a day, unless you’ve got 5 hours on hand. Yet, for the time it took to read, I found the book to be utterly enchanting. I thought the pace and the length was very rewarding.
If you are new to middle grade historical fantasy and are coming to it from an adult angle or a YA angle, I think that Splendors And Glooms is the book to start with. It’s very intelligent, with themes that I haven’t even discussed in depth, but could discuss — from privilege, to the agency of females. The atmosphere is immersive. The characters, well drawn. Laura Amy Schlitz has absolutely impressed me with Splendors And Glooms and I am kind of hoping all my friends read it so we can discuss it.
Disclosure: Received for review via Netgalley
Other reviews of Splendors And Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz:
The Book Smugglers – “Splendors and Glooms is a Victorian gothic tale that is ALL THE THINGS.”
Charlotte’s Library – “It is a gripping read, very nicely told indeed”
Recovering Potter Addict – “I personally was constantly invested in the story and the characters”