Knopf Books for Young Readers
MG Fantasy, 240 pages
I received an advance electronic copy of this title from the publisher, in exchange for a fair and unbiased review.
Unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn't believe in anything that can't be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia's help.
As Ophelia embarks on an incredible journey to rescue the boy everything that she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy's own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world.
A story within a story, this a modern day fairytale is about the power of friendship, courage and love, and never ever giving up.
To be honest, as a kid, I was never really a dark and dreary fairytale sort of person.
One time, I had nightmares because I read a version of East of the Sun, West of the Moon complete with the gory “chop off your pinkie for your true love who turned into a bird and flew off because YOLO” scene.
My mom banned me from the collection of fairy tales for the next few months.
As a brief note on exactly what kind of kid I was, I then merged from fairy tales into Goosebumps. At night. With dim lighting on. (What kind of kid was Kaye back in the olden days? One who didn’t take a hint from her dreams and liked to scare herself silly.)
So, keep in mind that Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is a story that young Kaye would have devoured, and then scoured the entire household for a flashlight or two to keep herself company afterward.
Ophelia starts out deceptively light – to the point that I nearly put it aside, because the text seemed so very simplistic and childish. I will note that I adore picture books, and they have their warm, fluffy place in my heart even now. However, once you reach the middle-grade tier of titles, you expect something a bit more mature, something a reader – even one outside of the age group – can sink their teeth into without feeling inappropriately condescended.
In picture books, we find happy, small sentences for happy, small fingers: “She went up. She went down. She went into town.”
Ophelia has similar adventures, when she first starts exploring the mysterious museum that is her temporary home, and prison to the aforementioned Marvelous Boy she will need to rescue. She ventures into big halls. She ventures into little halls. She stops to take a peek at something incredible…and then she wanders out again.
It may seem all too light and easy – at first. Because then she finds the Marvelous Boy. And then you have these morbidly engrossing recaps of his adventure and his mission against the evil Snow Queen (not at all an Elsa, mind you – a child-slaying, land-freezing, cold-hearted witch) to look forward to.
Including one brilliant segment where one of the Queen’s evil owls EATS HIS FINGER in a trade, to cast a protective spell on him. There’s more to the scene than that, and it all does make sense once you read it, but that was definitely a point where younger Kaye would start checking her closet and outside her window to see if a snowfall was starting up.
This is not a picture book, ladies and gentlemen. This is a fairy tale that Neil Gaiman or Roald Dahl or Hans Christian Anderson would be proud of. This is the story of a queen who wants to kill a boy so badly that she will lock him up, and wait years to kill him before he can kill her. (I suppose some people would point out that two wrongs don’t make a right, but still.)
This is the story of a little girl, overcoming her grief for her lost mother, and finding her own ways to be brave while facing down man-eating birds, and asthma attacks, and her own young mortality.
And it all works – deceptive language and all. Perfectly. Though I have to admit, there were times I regressed to young Kaye and squeezed my eyes shut before I pressed forward on my Kindle, ready for the worst possible scenario.
(I am only just starting to realize that I was a bit of a softie, back in the day. Considering the way that I torture my own characters now, I wonder where that went.)
The thing was, you can overlook everything that might go wrong for Ophelia. I loved Ophelia. She was the type of plucky Everygirl that you want to see in fiction – the girl who could be next door, or you, just waiting for some evil undead ruler to rise up so that you can set aside your meek and mild-mannered ways and dig down deep to the hero within.
Ophelia has her little ‘puffer’, her quirks and sensibilities – including rejecting all the fantastic beliefs of her lost writer mother – and she has her doubts about a quest for a strange little boy locked away in a museum who has to kill a snow queen. And that is another beautiful thing about this book: it turns expectations on its head.
Ophelia is the type of girl that many would pat on the head and tell her to sit down, and catch her breath, and look at the pretty museum murals while thinking of a way to convince her father to carry out the quest for her. But she doesn’t.
I’ve seen complaints from other reviewers on GoodReads, mainly along the lines of this having been done before, and being done better. The fact is, there is no new fantasy under the sun. Everyone takes out some stitches, adds a few new patches, and their own twist of whimsy locked up inside like a Build-a-Bear heart.
That is what is done here, and I won’t say that it couldn’t have been done better. But it was done the way it was supposed to be done here (though I could have done away with that gratuitous finger-eating scene. That brought back some memories. Not good ones).
If you like Claire Legrand, as I do, you’ll enjoy this. If you enjoy stories where the children win in the end – but not without a lot of gasping and cringing – you’ll enjoy this.
Of note: Mild violence of the fairy tale variety, threats against young children, and some hair-raising scenes that are not out of the norm for the middle-grade set. If you are timorous or faint of heart, you’ll survive. Just keep your flashlight at the ready.