Title: Serafina and the Black Cloak
Author: Robert Beatty
Format: Paperback, 320 pages
Publication: June 14th 2016 by Disney Hyperion (first published July 14th 2015)
Source: Publisher (thank you Sharon Keefauver and Disney Hyperion!)
Genre: Fiction—Fantasy, Gothic, Historical, Mystery
Other classifications: Middle Grade
“Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul.”
Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists.
But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.
I received a review copy from the publisher which in no way swayed my opinion about the work.
In Serafina and the Black Cloak, Beatty blends together eerie imagery, an intriguing premise, and a spunky heroine.
Set in 1899 Asheville, North Carolina, the book centers on Serafina, Chief Rat Catcher (C.R.C.) of the Vanderbilts’ estate. Her pa worked on the construction of the great house and they have lived illicitly in its basement for as long as she can remember. She naps during the day and hunts at night—and that is not the only thing unusual about her—all the while avoiding any contact with the people upstairs. Then, one night, she witnesses a frightening man as his cloak appears to consume a girl. Suddenly, children in Biltmore Estate are vanishing and Serafina races to unveil the Man in the Black Cloak before it’s too late; she is the only one who has seen him in action, after all. But first, she needs to risk exposure and team up with the landowners’ orphan nephew, Braeden Vanderbilt. As the reader follows the two uncover the mystery of the disappearances and the man responsible for them, he also follows Serafina in her self-discovery.
“She didn’t want to go another step, but friends had to help friends. She didn’t know much about life, but she did know that, knew that for sure, and she wasn’t going to run away like a scared-out-of-her-wits squirrel just when somebody needed her most.”
It is not uncommon for middle grade novels to operate in good versus evil, in which the former always prevails. The first books of the Harry Potter series easily come to mind. But every now and then, we get stories like Serafina and the Black Cloak, where the line isn’t as clear-cut, where there is a vague sense of uncertainty even as the heroine thwarts the villain. This along with Serafina’s inner journey and coupled with strong messages on family, friendship, and bravery make for a satisfying, emotionally resonant read. It is also atmospheric with its descriptive prose and Gothic setting. The author utilizes the opulent backdrop of Biltmore Estate and its surrounding landscape very well.
“She was beginning to see how difficult it was to determine who was good and who was bad, who she could trust and who she had to watch out for. Every person was a hero in his own mind, fighting for what he thought was right, or just fighting to survive another day, but no one thought they were evil.”
I’m glad this generation of young readers has Serafina to look up to. She’s fierce and loyal as well as a stockpile of curiosity and conflicting temperaments. She longs to be a part of the world of the lavishly dressed masters and guests of Biltmore, though she knows she is too strange-looking to them. She is drawn to the forest, though she is aware of the dangers lurking in the trees. And it’s this inner struggle to belong, while at the same time searching for one’s identity, while trying to make sense of the world around you that is sure to connect with readers of all ages. And her friendship with Braeden—another loner like our MC—is just heartwarming.
“Our character isn’t defined by the battles we win or lose, but by the battles we dare to fight.”
Notwithstanding a bit of rough patches here and there, Serafina and the Black Cloak is a fast-paced, suspenseful debut. Definitely recommended for its target market (8 – 12 years old) but also for everyone who’s into this type of stories.
Robert Beatty lives in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, with his wife and three daughters. He writes full-time now, but in his past lives he was one of the pioneers of cloud computing, the founder/CEO of Plex Systems, the co-founder of Beatty Robotics, and the CTO and chairman of Narrative magazine.
Have you read this one? Are you into MG? What are some of your favorite MG titles? Or, you know, your recent 5-star read? Come on, let’s talk!