I hardly know how to describe this book. It takes place in late 1890s Prague. Milena is a little girl who lost both her parents three years earlier. Her father died; her mother disappeared. Milena now lives with her grandmother and has two aunts nearby. Milena longs for the days past when her father was running a marionette theatre, and desperately wants to go to the new marionette show that has come to town, despite it being run by a creepy puppet master and his two evil twin assistants. The book is steeped in Czech folklore, both true and deviated from legend, and could best be defined by the term “circus horror.” In tone, it has a feel similar to Coraline or Enchanted Night.
This was a very intriguing book. I got the new paperback version that just came out, and I love the way it’s set up. The pages are all swept up in dusty color along the edges and corners to make it feel sooty or old (like the sooty edges of the cover in the picture above). There are illustrations and photos all throughout. The chapters are split into five sections, called Acts to make it more theatre-like, and the characters are all given an introduction prior to the book starting as The Players (again, like a play). The creep-factor runs the gamut from marionettes that seem almost lifelike to poisoned absinthe to mirror mazes. This would be a perfect book for RIP, as well as a wonderful folklore edition to my Once Upon a Time Challenge. I had no idea it was folklore-based when I began!
I loved this book, but admit that it has some issues. Honestly I’m not sure how big of a printing Puppet Master got, but it feels as if the publisher didn’t pay as much attention to the book as they should have. My problems aren’t with the story itself, but the editing and printing. For example, there were copy-editing mistakes all over the text, just like an ARC would have. Periods missing. Quotes in the wrong places. Paragraphs that end with a comma instead of a full stop. And then there were some basic fact mistakes that ought to have been caught by any editor or copy-editor, like Milena’s grandmother calling her daughter-in-law’s sisters her own sisters-in-law, or the assertion that the two twins, a boy and a girl, were identical twins.
The story itself was wonderful, and the writing exquisite. There were some places in the high action where I got a little confused by who was where – again, something an editor should have been able to help improve. I feel like this was a wonderful little book that got shafted by the publisher, honestly. It could have been magnificent, and instead, it’s just great. Not that great is bad, great is certainly good. It’s a definite keeper book and I’d love for my kids to read it too! But I get frustrated that people will look at these little errors and think they’re the author’s fault, when really, 95% of them aren’t.
I hope this review doesn’t make it sounds like I didn’t enjoy the book. Because I did. I picked it up and read it all in a single day. I didn’t want to put it down. It’s gripping and slightly creepy and I think I’m going to read it again near Halloween! I love the way everything comes together and how all the folklore is woven in piece by piece. I love that Owen gives information at the end about the real folklore and provides a glossary and some information about Czech language and history. And for someone who has wanted to go to Prague forever, I’m aching to go even more now!