Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy is Karen Foxlee's first fantasy and her first book for middle grade readers. Her first two books, The Anatomy of Wings and The Midnight Dress, both of which received impressive reviews, are YA fiction set in Foxlee's native Australia. Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, like Anne Ursu's masterpiece Breadcrumbs, is a retelling of Hans Christian Andersen's The Snow Queen. Like the original, both novels feature a girl who rescues a boy after a trial filled journey, they are very different and equally wonderful.
Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard is a lot of interesting things, none of which seem to add up to rescuer and hero. She is asthmatic, scientifically minded, and shaken by the death of her mother, "exactly three months, seven days, and nine hours ago," as the novel begins. But, Ophelia is also curious and what better place to be curious than the enormous, eclectic museum in a foreign city where her father has taken a job curating an expansive show modestly titled, Battle: The Greatest Exhibition of Swords in the History of the World. Fortunately, Ophelia is also curious and, in the absence of her once fun older sister, Alice, she sets off to explore the museum on her own. One of my favorite parts of Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy are the endpapers, which are a mixture of a map of the museum and frames and scrolls that list the exhibits on each floor. I wish I could list them all, they are so imaginative and evocative, but I'll limit myself to a few and hope that you will buy the book yourselves so that you can enjoy them all: 4th-Floor Galleries: Culture of Cossack, Customs of Marriage, Broken Toys, Very Sharp Medical Devices, Brains in Juice, A Quaker Kitchen, 2nd-Floor Galleries: Alchemy: The Exhibition, Dollhouses and Dolls, Gallery of Wolves, Re-created 19th Century Street, 3rd-Floor Galleries: Really Big Urns, Gallery of Painted Girls, Beetles, Buttons, Crowns, Life in Mongolia, Carnival Masks, Thimbles.
When, on her first day exploring the deserted museum, Ophelia notices a roped off gallery adjacent to the "much-celebrated sea monster mosaic floor," she slips under the red ropes and spots a nondescript grey door in the corner of the room with the small silver numbers 302 over it. Entering this new gallery, Ophelia is take by a small stage with a mural of mountains, a blue sea and a boy with a sword as a backdrop. Above this scene, painted in gold, are the words, THE MARVELOUS BOY. And, hidden in this mural is a small door with a golden keyhole. Without thinking, Ophelia presses her eye to the keyhole and is surprised when a voice says, "Hello." It is the Marvelous Boy and, over the course of days, Ophelia listens to his story about the world he has come from and the dangerous, evil force that he has been hand-picked (by a protectorate of wizards from the east, west and middle) to thwart. Not only must Ophelia put herself in danger by visiting secret rooms in the museum to retrieve the three keys needed to open the door and release the Marvelous Boy so that he can be reunited with the sword the wizards bestowed on him, but she must avoid the suspicious museum director, Miss Kaminski, who always dresses in white, smells a bit like hot chocolate and brings a bracing chill with her wherever she goes.
Ophelia's forays into the museum's secret rooms in an effort to free the Marvelous Boy have her encountering some amazingly imaginative creatures, from the Misery Birds to the ghosts of the girls from the Gallery of the Painted Girls to the Wintertide Clock that is set to go off for the first time in decades the same night as the opening of the exhibit. As she manages to take on each new task, she slowly lets go of her insistence on science and facts and her inherent hesitation in the face of a challenge, Ophelia finds herself growing closer to the spirit of her mother, a writer of scary fantasy stories who believed in everything. The story of the Marvelous Boy, which he tells to her through the keyhole over the course of their brief friendship in an effort to convince her to help him escape, evokes a strange, fairy tale-like world that parallels the strangely ominous, chilly world of the museum. Foxlee maintains a tone of sadness and grief over the course of the story, equal to that of the character from the original Andersen story at the loss of her best friend to the Snow Queen, in an ever present but not overwhelming way. At the end of the story when the Snow Queen is defeated (a great scene with a minimum of violence) Ophelia, rather than be reunited with the Marvelous Boy, as the friends in Andersen's Snow Queen were, she must say goodbye to him as he is finally able to return to his world. However, Ophelia leaves the city of the strange museum and the Marvelous Boy with a weight lifted from her shoulders, no longer needing to count the months, days and hours since she lost her mother.
With Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy, Foxlee has woven together the present and the past, the real and the imagined, in an elegant way that will linger with readers long after they have finished reading.
Source: Review Copy