The Cabinet of Wonders by Marie Rutkoski falls into the category of "one of those books that caught my eye but took me a year or two to get around to reading and boy am I glad I did!" It seems like books from the fantasy genre are the kind that most often fall into this category for me, for some reason. I think that is because books of this nature are so prevalent these days and sometimes they tend to blur together without many distinguishing characteristics. However, from the cover, with it's superb illustration by David Frankland, to the main character to almost every aspect of the plot, The Cabinet of Wonders has many wonderful distinguishing characteristics that it had me reaching for the second book, The Celestial Globe, the moment I finished the last page of The Cabinet of Wonders.
When The Cabinet of Wonders begins, we find Master Kronos being returned to Okno after spending six months in Prague. Having been commissioned by the young prince of Bohemia to build the world's finest astronomical clock, Master Kronos has been banished from Prague and the clock remains incomplete, as does Master Kronos. Before he could finish the heart of the clock, the magical piece that would allow the prince to control the weather and destroy his enemies, Prince Rodolfo removed Master Kronos' eyes and sent him home, intent on completing the work himself with the help Master Kronos' bewitched eyes. Master Kronos accepts his fate with a calm that Petra is not even remotely capable of, especially when she learns that the reason her father took the job in the first place (as if one could say "no" to the prince) was to secure a place for her at Karlov University, the magical academy attended only by the children of the wealthiest Bohemians. Petra is so sure that none of her father's magical talents have been passed on to her that she has not bothered to learn any of the properties of the metals that he works with, convinced that she will not continue on his trade. And, in light of this, she has never once felt the desire to attend the stuffy Academy with a bunch of stuck up rich kids. Distraught thinking that her father has lost his livelihood trying to obtain a position for her that she never wanted, Petra impetuously heads for Prague and the Salamander Castle where Prince Rudolfo and her father's eyes reside.
The plot of The Cabinet of Wonders itself follows the common quest theme. What Rutkoski brings to this story is the rich imagery, the unique (for this genre) setting and the wonderful characters that populate Bohemia. Petra's best friend in Okno, Tomik, is an apprentice to his father, Master Stakan who runs the Sign of Fire, the glassblower's establishment. Although most magical abilities begin to show themselves when a child is fourteen, Tomik's are already revealing themselves. He has invented three glass balls, each filled with something that will multiply one hundred times when broken. Tomik gives these Marvels - one filled with lightning, one with water and one with an angry wasp - to Petra as she sets off on her journey. Once in Prague, Petra has the good fortune to have her purse stolen by a Gypsy named Indraneel, or Neel. Catching him out and keeping him from being sent to jail builds a bond between the two and and proves helpful when the time comes to enter the castle. The gypsies also provide another interesting branch of magical abilities and mythology that weaves nicely into the story. With the help of Neel's sister, Petra obtains a job in the castle, first as a kitchen maid and, when she is fired from her job after only a matter of hours, she is sent to the Dye Works. In yet another fascinating wrinkle to her story, Rutkoski creates Irenka Grisetta December, the sixth Countess of Krumlov, Iris for short. A crotchety old crone, Iris is also an absentminded genius who runs the Dye Works, which is part of the Thinker's Wing of the castle, which is a series of laboratories where the prince's magicians experiment and create. Iris is plagued by the odd affliction of becoming acidic when emotional and melting everything that surrounds her. Because of this, she is feared by almost everyone in the castle, but Petra has a respect for her that allows them to become fast friends - even though Iris never thinks to ask Petra her name.
The goings on at the castle and the wickedness of Prince Rodolfo and Petra's inevitable theft (or reclaiming) of her father's eyes from the prince's Cabinet of Wonders make up most of the story. But, the details of life in the castle (especially the magical doors to the prince's room - AMAZING! I would love to see them illustrated) are so intriguing that you almost forget that Petra is there for a reason. The little ways that Rutkoski introduces magic into the story are also a treat. Like the Worry Vials created by Master Stakan that are made to contain and relieve the owner of his or her troubles. However, Tomik has discovered a flaw in the design that could be the end of his father's business or might be the key to Petra's success at the palace. In addition to a magnificent imagination, Rutkoski is a truly wonderful writer and passages will make you stop and think, then read them again. Here is one of my favorites:
Petra had not cried once since the day her father was brought home in the cart, and she refused to do so in front of this lithe and untrustworthy thief. She had to get out of the tavern. Right then she felt like a sheet of thin paper soaked with dirty water, and just one more drop would make her disintegrate into shreds.
Another wonderful piece of writing occurs again, when exploring the Thinker's Wing Petra encounters the polite and welcoming painter Kristof, working studiously on what appears to be a blank canvas, a canvas she later learns has the magical ability to make people disappear. Rutkoski writes,
Petra thought about Kristof, about his unlocked door and sweet manner. She thought about how the prince had tricked her father into thinking he was a friend. If you would like to know how easy it is to overlook evil, to see it for something else, Petra could tell you: it is the easiest thing in the world.