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The Clockwork Crow, first in a new series by Catherine Fisher.

I feel on pretty sure ground when reviewing children’s picture books, but lacking a librarian’s insight and knowledge about middle readers, kids around the ages of nine to twelve, I often find myself out on a limb or on very thin ice. So, dear reader, this is a bookseller’s review of Catherine Fisher’s The Clockwork Crow. I read it; I loved it, and if I were still working at Clayton Books, I would heartily recommend Catherine Fisher’s novel to my customers.

To begin with, we have a wonderfully classic heroine, 12-year-old Seren Rhys, orphaned when her parents died in India, and she was sent to an English orphanage until she was twelve, when an elderly great-aunt found her and took her to live with her near London. Seren was orphaned a second time when the aunt died six months later. However, she did not have to return to the orphanage as Captain Arthur Jones, her father’s oldest friend, offers her a home with his wife and son in a grand estate called Plas-y-Fran, in Wales.

Enough background. We meet spunky Seren on a freezing night, standing alone on a station platform while waiting for the train bound for Trefil, Wales. The stationmaster asks if she’d rather sit in the warm waiting room for first-class ticket holders. Of course, Seren’s ticket is third-class, but she bluffs her way into the empty but warm and toasty room. Just when we think things are going swimmingly, a thin, strange man, dressed in black, appears in a dark corner of the waiting room clutching a newspaper-wrapped box tied with string. Seren is certain the tall, skinny man with a dark hat pulled down was not in the waiting room when she entered. She is equally certain the waiting room door had not opened since she entered.

Aha! Something strange and foreboding about the man and his box. The man suddenly claims to hear a noise outside. He panics, telling Seren it is “Them!” Before stepping outside to see if he can find the source of the sound, he leaves the box with Seren, assuring her he will return in a moment, but she must not let the box out of her care. He does not return before the train for Wales arrives. Having promised that she would hold onto the box, Seren, with some trepidation and reluctance, takes the box with her when she boards the train.

Once onboard, Seren cannot resist unwrapping the box to see what is inside. “Cogs and wheels, pins and screws. A pile of small springs. Something that looked like a beak, hinged with leather: A great mass of black feathers. Two sharp talons and a higgledy-piggledy heap of what might be pieces of wing.” On top of all that, a shiny, eye-shaped jewel winks at her, and a piece of paper, in which a key is wrapped, reads:The Clockwork Crow

The station at Trefil is nothing more than a platform; nothing to greet Seren but more cold, snow, and darkness until she hears the nicker of a horse and sees “the smallest man she had ever seen” coming forward to ask if she is the “The little girl for the Plas, is it?” There is no Captain Jones, or wife, or son waiting for her in the carriage driven by the little man. And when they finally arrive at the Captain’s palatial estate of Plas-y-Fran, it is as dark and empty, save the little man, a housekeeper, and a stableboy, as the snowy woods surrounding them.

All a reader needs to know is that the boy has gone missing and his parents are in London. Before the night is over and Seren is taken by candlelight to her room, she focuses on the box’s contents. Her curiosity is stronger than her sense of danger, compelling her to put the crow together. Is the crow a toy? If not a toy, then what? How long has the boy been missing? Why are the household servants so secretive about everything?

No more information from this reviewer. But I can say that the crow is not a toy. The servants finally talk. And Seren begins to put the mystery together as carefully as she did the crow. She and the not-quite-living, but definitely not a toy, crow, finally set out to search for the son (missing for a year!) and they discover the identities of who the man dressed in black fearfully called “Them!” And his fear of “Them!” is not at all unreasonable.

It’s fun, it is, indeed, scary, and best of all, there are now three stories in the Clockwork Crow Series. I have a granddaughter who will be nine years old this month, and Catherine Fisher’s The Clockwork Crow is now wrapped and ready to go!  — Sunny Solomon

Also available by Catherine Fisher: At the World’s End; The Crystal Stair; The Velvet Fox; The Obsidian Mirror; The Box of Red Brocade; The Door in the Moon; The Speed of Darkness; Incarceron; Sapphique; Crown of Acorns; The Ghost Box; The Magic Thief; The Cat with Iron Claws; The Weather Dress; The Hare and Other Stories; The Relic Master; The Interrex; Flain’s Coronet; The Margrave; The Lammas field; Darkwater Hall; Corbenic; Darkhenge; The Oracle Trilogy (Oracle, Archon, Scarab); The Snow Walker Trilogy; The Glass Tower Trilogy; The Bramble King (poetry); Immrama (Poetry); Unexplored Oceans (Poetry); Altered States (Poetry); Folklore (Poetry).

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