Friday, July 15, 2016

Serafina and the Black Cloak

Serafina and the Black Cloak
Robert Beatty
Disney/Hyperion, 2015 293 pgs
Grades 5-8
Fantasy/Mystery

Serafina lives a secret life in the basement of the Vanderbilt's Biltmore Estate in turn-of-the-century North Carolina. Her father is the estate's mechanic and he hides Serafina in the engine room, where she sleeps by day and wanders the basement catching rats by night. One evening, while going about her rounds, Serafina encounters a terrible sight; a creepy man in a black cloak who is chasing a young girl, corners her, and then seems to consume her in his cloak. The next morning all of the guests at the estate are concerned about the girl's disappearance and are organizing searching parties. Accustomed to never being noticed, Serafina is surprised when the young nephew and ward of the Vanderbilt's, Braeden, not only sees her, but befriends her. The two new friends search for the missing girl together, encountering a near-deadly assault from the man in the cloak after which being forced to spend a long night in a carriage in the woods. More children begin disappearing and Serafina finally suspects the true identity of the culprit. The only problem is her suspect is someone who Braeden trusts and he doesn't want to believe her. Serafina concocts a plan to lure the perpetrator into the open, thus revealing his true nature. Unfortunately, her plan involves great personal danger, deceiving her father and Braeden, and a run-in with a wild mountain lion. Serafina must tap into her inner courage and use skills she formally thought of as liabilities in order to see that justice is done.

First time author, Robert Beatty, pens a creepy mystery in a traditional Gothic setting with fantastic touches. Serafina is an unlikely heroine. She is the lowliest resident of the enormous Biltmore Estate and exhibits physical features that render her different and unfit for public viewing. These physical features help her to succeed in thwarting evil and have a very cool reason for belonging to her, as explained by book's end. The main mystery of the story is finding out the identity of the person inside the black cloak and the fate of the disappearing children. A secondary mystery is that of Serafina's parentage. All mysteries are satisfactorily solved with no dangling threads and the book ends pleasantly. There are bits in the book that are truly scary, such as the few instances when we see children get taken by the mysterious cloaked man, and the overall tone of the story is dark. Even though no permanent damage is done and all of the children are brought back to life upon the demise of the villain, this is not a story for sensitive or younger kids. All of the victims miraculously surviving consumption by the black-cloaked man is highly unrealistic, as is the whole ordeal being explained away to the Vanderbilts and their friends, but considering the intended audience, these plot choices are preferable in order to alleviate nightmares. The story feels old-fashioned and will appeal to horror lovers as well as readers who appreciate their historical fiction with a little bit of "bite". Serafina's adventures continue in Serafina and the Twisted Staff, which was released earlier this week.

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