Sunday, October 6, 2013

The Cabinet of Wonders (The Kronos Chronicles #1) by Marie Rutkoski

When I was young I hated to cook. I remember purposefully burning the lefse so I could get out of making it with my mom and two sisters. As a newlywed I'd be asked by my mom to bring a dish to some family holiday and it never tasted very good so eventually she asked me to bring the rolls or pickles. Alas, I wasn't trying to get out of that duty, but cooking for me is like flying. I'm only good at it in my dreams. When Petra gets a job at the castle with the plan of stealing back her father's stolen eyes from the prince, she doesn't get along with the cook and purposefully sabotages her recipe. How can I not love a character like that? She's good at using her brains to solve problems and she's courageous; yet flawed. My kind of story. My kind of gal.

Petra's father is a skilled craftsman who builds a clock for the prince that not only tells time, but has the potential to control the weather. The prince takes her father's eyes planning to finish the clock on his own by building the last part to it. (This is a fantasy. Eyes can be surgically removed and popped in and out of sockets like contact lenses.) Petra is spitting mad and with the help of her friend, Tomik, Neel, and Astrophil, she sets off for the castle in search of a job that will give her access to the prince's chambers. She begins in the kitchen before getting shipped off to a job nobody wants with Iris, the "acid lady" that makes fabric dyes for the prince. Iris has skin that oozes acid when she's upset making her a pariah even though she descends from royalty. Gears, metals, and clockworks make this steampunk novel quite different from the usual fantasy trope. 

The plot is organized with the two characters in the beginning having critical parts toward the end of the story. The setting and description of guilds and clocks made it easy for me to picture Prague or even Brussels. The use of the prince as a Hapsburg firmly placed the setting for me in Europe and made me think of World War I starting as a result of a Hapsburg being assassinated, but the end notes explain that the setting presents the 16th century European renaissance. The use of horses as transportation and reference to the historical figure, Dee Smith, placed it at an earlier time and helped give me a clear picture of a place. Clues are given as the story progresses with most of my questions answered except the time Astrophil fell asleep. It progressed the plot so Petra got to go to the Roma camp but it didn't make sense why he passed out. He's a machine. I liked how the Danior story ties in with Jarek and the noble elephant protecting Petra and Neel. Neel's tale of fiddler is a true Roma folktale that reminded me of the Charlie Daniel Band's famous song, "The Devil Came Down to Georgia." I knew the song, but not the origins of the folktale.

An important question that the plot hinges on is why would Petra's father build a clock that controls the weather in the first place? Who would be crazy enough to think of this and why would he not think that the person, such as the prince, would use the weather to attack other countries or use it to his or her advantage? The author presents the father as a bit of a creative ditz who could only see the challenge of building such a machine rather than the consequences. The stronger argument is that Petra's father wanted to be paid for building the clock by getting a full scholarship for Petra to the Academy. Education is only available to the elite and he saw this as an opportunity for his daughter. Her father is presented as a scholar with his own library and this crucial explanation strengthened what could have been a weak plot point. As such, the author gives plausible motivations by the father even if they are not wise.

The author doesn't present the Roma people as stereotypical and when Neel explains the mathematical concept of zero I loved his insightful comment, "The best thing about wandering everywhere is that you can choose what you like of a place and take it with you, like almonds off a tree." As an international teacher, I can relate to the worldly wanderlust of the Roma people. They are good people who take in Petra and give good advice. Even the man who doesn't like Petra is painted in a complex and sympathetic way. 

The characters are particularly well-drawn, pulling me along the storyline like a hooked fish. Tomik is the gadget-man and childhood friend of Petra. Neel is the thief who helps her break into the prince's "Cabinet of Wonders." He helps Petra so he can help his people too. Astrophil is the adult-like person who imparts or teaches background information that explains topics and history that Petra wouldn't know on her own for her age. Petra has flaws but is basically strong and good. She reflects on things such as if she is being selfish or unreasonable (which she was) or how a person can look and act sweet but has evil actions. Her internal struggles with not being sure about wanting to discover if she can work magic or not, to not trusting or trusting other people, to being mentored by her mechanical spider, Astrophil, along with nice pacing and action make for a terrific read.

Reading Level 4.9
4 Smileys

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