REVIEW: Illuminations by T. Kingfisher
Rosa Mandolini knows in her heart that her family are the greatest painters of magical illuminations in the city. But the eccentric Studio Mandolini has fallen on hard times and the future is no longer certain. While trying to help her family, Rosa discovers a strange magical box protected by a painted crow. But when she finds a way to open the box, she accidentally releases the Scarling, a vicious monster determined to destroy the Mandolini family at any cost.
With the aid of her former best friend and a painted crow named Payne, it’s up to Rosa to stop the Scarling before it unmakes the magical paintings that keep the city running, and hopefully save her family in the process!
Dear Ms. Kingfisher,
This is truly a book aimed straight at middle grade age readers. As such it falls into the same group I’ve put “Minor Mage” and “A Wizards Guide to Defensive Baking” – fine but not in the same league as the Saint of Steel Paladin books or “Nettle and Bone.” But it’s also not as dark as the adult level books. The stakes are lower, actually, and I think the lessons to be learned about envy, jealousy, friendship, and working together are the main things to take away from it.
There is a heap of backstory in the first 20% of the book. It’s important, I could tell it would be important to the story and I’ve read worse info-dumps in my time but it is a whole lot of going nowhere fast to wade through before the actual action kicks off and things get interesting.
Even after the action starts though, the book shows its intended audience. As I said, “Illuminations” is absolutely a middle grade story. The heroine is eleven (almost twelve) and has thought processes and “talking herself into believing that things aren’t as bad as she actually knows they are” that I feel most of us adults will remember. She’s let something awful loose and hopes that she can fix it or – at times – that it will just go away and everything will be fine.
Rosa believes Payne, the crow, when he tells her not to spill the beans to her family about what she’s done. They can clear this up and letting others in on the secret will only make things worse. Insert lesson about trusting family and the emotional weight of lies. To his credit, Payne has seen what happens when this type of magic is free to wreak havoc so what he’s told her isn’t exactly bad advice. But Rosa still learns some lessons about believing everything someone tells you.
The magic is actually pretty cool and I enjoyed seeing it in action. One complaint I have is that just when Rosa and her family are backed into another corner, “something” is learned or Payne fesses up about another thing he didn’t mention earlier that gives them some breathing space. I think these action scenes will play well for people used to watching fantasy onscreen as they’re very well described though not too over described. They did tend to go on a bit with even more of the same yet bigger but the final message delivered is that working and pulling together helps make you better. I do have to say, thumbs up for the chirping fanged radishes. B-