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The Cabinet of Wonders
Marie Rutkoski
Farrar Strauss Giroux, 260 pages

The Cabinet of Wonders
Marie Rutkoski
Marie Rutkoski grew up in Bolingbrook, Illinois (a suburb of Chicago), as the oldest of four children. In high school, she was a member of the Young Adult Advisory Board at the Fountaindale Public Library in Bolingbrook. She later attended the University of Iowa, where she took Writers' Workshop classes and also studied with Pulitzer Prize–winner James Alan McPherson. After graduating, she lived in Moscow and Prague. Upon receiving her Ph.D. from Harvard University, she held dual appointments as a lecturer there in both English and American Literature and Language, and History and Literature. Ms. Rutkoski is currently a professor at Brooklyn College. She lives in New York City with her husband and cat. The Cabinet of Wonders is her debut novel.

Marie Rutkoski Website
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A review by David Hebblethwaite

In 16th century Bohemia, Mikal Kronos made a magnificent clock for the young Prince Rodolfo; in return, the prince had the craftsman's eyes gouged out. Mikal's twelve-year-old daughter Petra resolves to travel to Prague to recover her father's eyes. She gets a job in the royal palace and, with the aid of her pet mechanical spider Astrophil and a Roma boy named Neel, sets about trying to find the eyes. But Petra knows there is more at stake than her father's vision: Mikal's clock can control the weather, or it would if Prince Rodolfo could figure out how to make it work properly; this, naturally, is not something that rulers of other lands would wish to see happen, which is why the English emissary John Dee has a mission of his own for Petra...

The Cabinet of Wonders is a delight to read, primarily because of the light, deft touch with which Marie Rutkoski weaves magic into her fantasticated version of early modern Europe. From the talking tin animals onwards, she shows a knack for taking the most outlandish ideas and making them utterly believable and acceptable. Human eyes that can be taken out and worn by someone else? No problem. A fourth, hitherto unknown primary colour? Sure, we'll go with that. We'll go with these things because Rutkoski makes no great fuss over them: they just belong naturally to this setting. Our reaction is not to say, "that couldn't happen," but to feel the slow unfurling of wonder as it does happen.

It's not often that I find myself spontaneously picturing in my mind's eye the events of a story, but I did this time. And why not, when there are so many striking images, such as the Worry Vials, into which people can offload their troubles, causing the vials' contents to turn a dark, oily colour?

The foundation of Rutkoski's magical system is that people (though not everyone) each have their own magical talent -- so, for example, Mikal Kronos has an extraordinary ability to work with metal; and Petra's mistress at the palace Dye Works secretes acid from her skin. Even this, which could have come across as just a fantasy variant of superheroes, is fully woven into the fabric of the story, and becomes another source of... well, wonder.

I've dwelt at some length on the magic and fantasy of The Cabinet of Wonders, because that's what I found to be the most striking and enjoyable aspect of the novel. Underneath the trappings, we have a fairly traditional quest/coming-of-age story; but, again, it's done so well that it feels fresh. The Cabinet of Wonders is the first novel in a series; I think you can guess that I'm looking forward to the sequel.

Copyright © 2009 David Hebblethwaite

David lives somewhere in England, where he reads a lot of books and occasionally does other things. He has published over a hundred reviews in various venues; you can find links to them all, and more besides, at his blog, Follow the Thread.

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