The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman, 325 pp, RL: MIDDLE GRADE
The Grimm Legacy by Polly Shulman caught my eye the minute it hit the shelves in 2010. I am drawn to any story that proposes to reshape a fairy tale, especially one connected to the Brothers Grimm. The spectacular cover art by Zdenko Basic, creator of the cover art for one of my favorites, The Seven Sorcerers by Caro King, drew me in as well. On top of that, Shulman's idea of a circulating materials library that houses actual magical artifacts from the stories the Grimms recorded was just too good to pass up.
I had a hard time pinning down the ages of the main characters in The Grimm Legacy. At first I assumed that they were all middle school students, but as I read on and romantic feelings deepened between them, I decided that they must be in high school. Although it's not the main part of the story, by the end of the book there is some serious longing going on as well as a bit of actual kissing. I don't mean to be a prude, but based on this I really don't think that this book should be shelved in the 7 - 12 age range at the bookstore where I work, which is where I found it. I just don't think children (who am I kidding, girls) should be reading about that kind of thing before they are actual teenagers which I why I assigned this the reading level that I did. That said, Shulman does a lovely job with the romantic tension between main character Elizabeth and her sparring partner, Aaron.
Elizabeth Rew is a bit of a Cinderella. Her mother has died and her father has remarried a shrewish woman who alternately ignores, blames and treats Elizabeth like a maid. Elizabeth has two older step-sisters in college and their tuition fees have meant that Elizabeth has to leave the private school she has attended for years and quit the ballet lessons she loves. Elizabeth takes solace in the memories she has of reading fairy tales with her mother and admiring her collection of dolls. When Elizabeth chooses the topic of the Brothers Grimm for her winter break history assignment, this along with the generous act of giving her gym shoes and socks to a homeless woman who was without shoes and trudging through the snow, makes her a perfect candidate for a job as a page at the New York Circulating Material Repository. Her history teacher, Mr Mauskopf, takes notice of these qualities and sends her over to meet with his old friend and head of the library, Dr Rust. Once there, Elizabeth is immediately thrust into a mystery that proves increasingly dangerous. She's not sure who she can trust and misses almost every opportunity to ask an adult for help. Anjali, the eye catching East Asian page, and Marc Merritt, the tall, regally handsome basketball star from Elizabeth's school befriend her and show her the ropes at the library. They also catch her up in their illegal use of items from the Grimm Collection. Add to that mix Aaron, the page with Prince Charming good looks but a streak of jealousy and suspicion when it comes to Marc Merritt that is a mile wide. Elizabeth is almost as in awe of her new friendships with Anjali and Marc as she is the magical items that she soon has access to in the Grimm collection and happily tags along behind them as they decide to hunt down the thief who has been stealing magical items and replacing them with duplicates that quickly lose their powers.
Shulman does a masterful job conjuring up the Circulating Materials Repository, both the real and magical aspects of it. Besides the Grimm Collection there is the Wells Bequest (as in HG Wells, a collection of science-fiction creations that actually do what their authors imagined them to, including a shrink ray) and the Gibson Chrestomathy (after William Gibson, I am guessing, author who coined the phrase "cyberspace"). The trips through the stacks and the methods for organizing the objects are fascinating as well and Shulman has Elizabeth (and all the pages) pass an aptitude test that includes sorting various objects, most of which are some very strange buttons, into categories. I loved the scene where Marc, Anjali and Elizabeth compare notes about the various items included in their different sorting exams and what kind of extra object Dr Rust threw in at the end for each. The repository itself is also a fascinating place, obviously enchanted as it appears smaller on the outside that it is on the inside. There is a Main Exam Room where clients can check out and examine items from the various collections and there is a room that is lined with Tiffany windows that depict a garden throughout the seasons, not to be confused with the Garden of Seasons, an actual room hidden somewhere in the repository and plays a part in the climax of the book. There are pipes for pneumatics running all through the building so that pages can communicate with each other from the various stacks as well as hand carts and tags and other library type paraphernalia that sounded so exotic and fascinating to me as I read. However, my favorite creation of Shulman's for The Grimm Legacy is the way that different pages can sense the magic (or lack thereof) in an item, Elizabeth's ability specifically. Elizabeth can smell the magic in an object and Shulman uses some wonderfully olfactory, almost poetic, descriptions of combinations of smells when Elizabeth is sensing the presence of magic in an item.
Readers who enjoyed Michael Buckley's fabulous (and almost finished) Sisters Grimm series, Robin McKinley's superb retelling of Beauty and the Beast, Beauty, Gail Carson Levine's retelling of Cinderella, Ella Enchanted, and The Frog Princess by ED Baker, will gobble up The Grimm Legacy. However, as an adult who has read piles of middle-grade and young adult fantasy novels, especially those featuring anything having to do with fairy tales, I was a bit disappointed by what Shulman ultimately does with the wonderful stage she sets. Her main characters were a bit two-dimensional and her peripheral characters even more so. I could have happily overlooked that in service of the plot - if the action of the plot had risen to the level of the romantic fervor and matched Shulman's skill at writing these scenes. The villain of the story, who's motivations and personality could be very interesting, has barely any time on the page which makes all that's at stake seem less valuable and irreplaceable. In fact, the response of Dr Rust at the end of the story when they begin to figure out what has been stolen and sold is pretty low key and something along the lines of, "Oh, we have some pretty powerful lawyers. We'll get these things back eventually..." Also, Mrs Badwin, the stand-in for the witch from Hansel & Gretel with a collection of dolls who are actual royals from history who have been enchanted (she tells the kids a great story about spending $3,000 on a matryoshka doll that supposedly held the miniaturized Anastasia Romanov at its center but turned out to be a fake) could have had a bit more page time to up the suspense and danger in the story as well. She seemed like an interesting person and her hobby also might have had some connection to Elizabeth's mother and her pastime as well, but Shulman does not elaborate on that. The action scenes were not especially dramatic either, perhaps because the villains were so milquetoast.
For younger readers who like their Brothers Grimm served straight up, I strongly suggest Adam Gidwitz's spectacular A Tale Dark and Grimm, which takes two invented characters through the actual fairy tales, some of them lesser known, the Brothers Grimm recorded. For readers who know their fantasy and fairy tales, Anne Ursu's Breadcrumbs is a feast. Finally, for older readers who enjoyed the romantic aspects of The Grimm Legacy but like a story with more action, more suspense and bad guys who are truly bad, Cornelia Funke's Reckless is the first in a series of books about Jacob and Will Grimm and the land that they enter through their father's magic mirror. Truly creepy stuff with some Grimm-type romance thrown in...