Published by Disney-Hyperion on July 14th 2015
Genres: Children's Fiction, Gothic, Historical Fiction
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A spooky mystery-thriller about an unusual girl who lives secretly in the basement of the grand Biltmore Estate.
"Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there and they will ensnare your soul."
Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There's plenty to explore in the shadowed corridors of her vast home, but she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate's maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.
But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore's corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore's owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak's true identity before all of the children vanish one by one.
Serafina's hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.
I will admit about 20% through this book I nearly put it down as a DNF, even though it had a beautiful cover and the synopsis had me intrigued I was finding it very difficult to get into. Thankfully I kept going because I then finished the remaining 80% in one sitting and this ended up being a very nifty gothic middle grade novel that I’m sure I would have lapped up in my primary school years.
Set in the past on the mysterious and technologically advanced Biltmore Estate you are introduced to protagonist, Serafina – a half wild child who is up most of the night catching rats, living undetected in the boiler room of the great house with her father, a servant of the family.
One night while hunting down some pesky rats, Serafina gets more than she bargains for when she witnesses a most chilling scene involving a gentrified man complete with top hat and gloves stealing the very soul and life force of one the young girls visiting the estate with her parents. After nearly being caught herself, Serafina is soon mixed up in the mystery and hunt to find the mysterious man and his cloak before anyone else is harmed.
This is a pretty dark book and I am incredibly glad that I didn’t read this one to my four year old – it had me pretty spooked in parts and I don’t think I was quite ready to introduce my young child to the horror genre just yet! I think the reason I found this a little difficult to get into at first is the horrible conditions and background of young Serafina. While it does fit with the era and the story, it is still somewhat hard to read about a young child living in virtual poverty and being kept from all human contact except for her father. There is back story given as to why the father does it – Serafina isn’t quite all human (not a spoiler I promise!) and while through the protagonists eyes you understand she can’t quite see what’s different about her , she knows, and so you the reader knows that you can tell by simply looking at her that something is just not quite right about her.
The story picked up for me as she tentatively befriends the young master of the house, Braeden, nephew to the Lord and Lady of Biltmore Estate. Braeden like Serafina isn’t quite like most people and their blossoming friendship in amongst the action and thrills is a sweet and innocent chord of the story, and for me perhaps the shining light of this tale. The story is also very much a coming of age book with Serafina leaving the confines of the estate basement and trying to uncover her past and her heritage. Like all great coming of age novels there is a lot of emphasis on the understanding of good and evil and that what you see on the outside in no way determines the real moral fibre of a person:
She was beginning to see how difficult it was to determine who was good and who was bad, who she could trust and who she had to watch out for. Every person was a hero in his own mind, fighting for what he thought was right, or just fighting to survive another day, but no one thought they were evil.
The actual plot has 2 mysteries for the reader to uncover – one of which I found was fairly easy to guess and the other took me much by surprise. The main mystery of who the man with the black cloak is and how to stop him is quite a terrifying read and it very cleverly intertwines with the other more subtle mystery of who Serafina’s parents are and how she is different. Both stories weave together quite cleverly at the end and the reader is left most satisfied with a neat tie up and lots of good warm fuzzy feelings.
If your looking for a great novel for your primary age children with good levels of terror and thrills I think this one is a sure winner – I’m definitely glad I stuck with it!