Serafina and the Black Cloak

Serafina and the Black Cloak - Robert Beatty
[I received a copy through NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review.]

I will confess to requesting this book mostly because of its cover, in a "oh this looks pretty" moment. I don't regret it, for the story itself was fairly entertaining as well, and cute to boot.

Serafina lives with her father in the basement of a huge mansion, in the last years of the 19th century in the United States. There's a slight steampunkish atmosphere to that mansion, as it's crammed full to the brim of trinkets and machines to make those work, notably the dynamo Sera's father is in charge of. There's horror, in the shape of the Man with the Black Cloak, catching children at night and making them disappear within the folds of his costume. There's magical realism, with the forest, its legends, its old cemetery with a statue of an angel, and a quaint atmosphere, full of gentlemen and ladies, of little girls in nice dresses and little boys with their faithful dog and horses companions. There's mystery and a sense of adventure, for Serafina knows all the corridors and chimneys and tiny places in which to hide, and moves around unseen, able to spy on people and thus to discover pieces of the puzzle that no one else had.

While the setting might look a bit far-fetched, with its dozens or so or people always staying at Biltmore and its over-a-hundred rooms (although it was indeed a real house, historically speaking), I thought it worked very well for this kind of tale, providing a greater than life place from which it would be nevertheless difficult to escape—and so, of course, the characters had to face whatever awaited them. Surrounded with hills and a mysterious forest, the mansion wasn't the kind of house you could leave just like that, as doing so implied potential dangerous encounters in the wilderness. The mysterious man on the prowl in the halls at night lent a feeling of foreboding to the story, effectively trapping the children in their rooms... and those who would be walking around at night were sure preys.

Sera's and Braeden's friendship was so very cute. Sera never had any friends, due to having to stay hidden. Braden felt at odds with other children, and was wary of striking new friendships after what happened to his family. Two kids, not teenagers yet, still innocent in many ways—the rat-catcher girl living at night, the boy who preferred dogs and horses to other people—getting to find each other, understand each other better, appreciate each other no matter their differences. It was quite refreshing.

Too bad that I had my suspicions about who Serafina and the Black Cloak really were, and had them too early: the hints were easy enough to decipher for me (including a certain encounter in the forest). It didn't matter that much, though; the story remained nicely enchanting and eerie. Foreshadowing can, after all, also lead to knowing yet to still eagerly awaiting the actual events and reveals themselves.

(If anything else, I also wondered about some of the adults' reactions, especially the Vanderbilts sending their nephew away; in the light of the other children's disappearances, it was somewhat logical, but the timing was weird. Wouldn't that have put him in more danger, having to go through the forest at night?)

Nevertheless, this novel will likely be enjoyable for a lot of younger readers... and not so young ones as well, all things considered.