Title: Horten’s Miraculous Mechanisms: Magic, Mystery & a Very Strange Adventure
Series: Stuart Horten #1
Author: Lissa Evans
Pages: 270 pages
Publisher/Date: Sterling Children’s Books, c2012.
Publication Date: April 3, 2012 (originally published in 2011 in Great Britain as Small Change for Stuart)
“An entertainer,” answered his father. “A prestidigitator.”
“A magician. He used to do conjuring tricks on stage.”
“A magician??” Stuart repeated. “You had an uncle who was a magician? But you never told me that.”
“Oh, didn’t I?” said his dad vaguely. “Well, I know very little about him. An I suppose it didn’t occur to me that you’d be interested.” [...]
“So, what sort of tricks did he do?”
“I’m not sure.”
“And what was he like?”
“I don’t remember him at all, I’m afraid. I was very young when he disappeared.” (12-13)
His father might not think so, but ten-year-old Stuart is VERY interested in his great-uncle Tony, the magician who disappeared without a trace several years after a fire burned his factory. After discovering coins in an old money-box and receiving a mysterious phone call on an obviously broken pay phone, Stuart realizes that these might be clues to where Great-Uncle Tony’s rumored second, secret workshop has been resting, undisturbed for all these years. Dodging the pesky, prying eyes of the identical triplets next door who purport to being reporters isn’t Stuart’s only problem, as his curiosity in his ancestor catches the attention of someone who is just as interested in finding the workshop and claiming the contents.
A highly engaging and thoroughly engrossing debut middle-grade novel by Lissa Evans. Quickly inhaled in less than two hours, time just disappeared (pardon the pun) while reading this compact book (and I’m not just referring to the book or poor Stuart’s small size). I would go so far as to compare this to Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me as it’s mostly realistic fiction with hints of magic/fantasy until you get to the very end where’s there a twist.
While adults are distant and almost nonexistent in the plot, that doesn’t mean they are absent completely, with both Stuart and April’s parents disciplining them for their disobedience, which is more than we see from most parents. Stuart and April have more than enough personality to carry the book, with April’s knowledge and confidence playing nicely against Stuart’s self-consciousness and curiosity, and they’ve both got determination to spare. They ask questions when they need answers, but they are otherwise very self-sufficient in discovering and deciphering the clues and don’t need to rely on adults for assistance.
Speaking of which, I got a little moment of librarian joy that Stuart enlists the help of library archives to solve the mystery, using “old-fashioned” sleuthing skills such as consulting a map, gathering first hand accounts, and examining photographs. The story reads as almost timeless, with only one mention of computers that I can think of. The cover artwork (with no credit that I can find on the book) also seems to play up an older appearance, with the monochromatic illustrations making it look very different from the colorful cover artwork we’ve gotten used to seeing. This might put it at a disadvantage on the shelf, but readers who enjoyed the mechanics of The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick might be pulled in by the title’s promise of “Miraculous Mechanisms”. While probably a shelf sleeper, the availability of the sequel, Horten’s Incredible Illusions: Magic, Mystery & Another Very Strange Adventure (published in September), might help it gather more attention, and the description of book two makes it sound like there are still more adventures to come for Stuart Horten.
Read it before everyone else discovers it, then find yourself recommending it.