Review: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

With the new year, I’m going to attempt more reviews, and new format of presentation.

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee (Knopf Books for Young Readers, Expected Publication: January 28, 2014)

A captive boy who never ages, a city where it’s always snowing, the fearsome  Wintertide clock that is ticking down the hours. And Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard, a girl who fiercely misses her mother,  in the middle of it all.

Quick Summary:  A lovely and lyrical  contemporary fantasy takes place in the misty crossroads where reality intersects with the impossible world of story and fairytale.  In attempt to ease their grieving Ophelia’s father has brought his girls with him to a strange city to spend the holidays while he works on an exhibit of swords for the museum.  Ophelia doesn’t believe in magic or legends or anything that can’t be proven by science, yet her  exploration of the museum leads to a startling discovery that shakes her world out of order.  Down a dusty hall she finds a locked door and beyond it a boy–a boy who has been a prisoner for more than seventy years, yet not aged a day.  And he’s in need of Ophelia’s help.  Suddenly caught up in a fantastic story fraught with danger and magic, that defies rational explanation Ophelia is tasked with finding a key, and a sword, and helping the Marvelous Boy stop the Snow Queen.   Ophelia knows she is hardly heroic material, but the Wintertide clock is ticking, and soon the dark hour will strike . . . can one small, but brave girl possibly save the world?

What Kind of Story Is it?: It’s a contemporary fantasy adventure story of good versus evil.  And yet to say that is simplistic and hardly the truth of this lovely book.  It’s  a story of the reluctant hero who finds their own hidden strengths.  Of family, of loss and of friendship.  Of swords and destinies fulfilled.  And it does it all in a scant 227 pages of lyrical storytelling.  Despite the contemporary fantasy designation, the entire story feels like it takes place in a sort of timeless bubble that could be anyplace, anywhen.  There’s something in the telling that evokes memories of Lucy going through the wardrobe and winding up in Narnia–except that in this story, the magic has intruded into the real world, ha–in fact–come seeking Ophelia rather than the other way around.

This book is also about grief, and dealing with the loss of a parent.  Ophelia keeps track of the months, days, hours and minutes since she lost her mother, but feels disconnected from her father and sister who are caught up in their own grief.  Her quest to help the Marvelous Boy is interwoven with memories of her mother and her mother’s advice.  The author never reveals whether the advice Ophelia “hears” is real or simply remembered, but  either way the mother is a constant companion in this quest, giving Ophelia courage when she most needs it, but also forcing her to confront her own grief and loss.  And to ultimately begin to see through her grief–to help her family and be the person her mother would want her to be.

The book has a handful of black and white illustrations by Yoko Tanaka that help support the tone and setting of the text.

Who is the Audience? : This is a fantasy for younger middle grade readers who like a thoughtful and emotional story.  It’s not the high action roller-coaster of  Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series or the fun and friends school story of J. K. Rowling’s Harry Potter.  This for a reader who likes a quieter fantasy.  One that is a stand-alone story rather than a series.

What I Liked:  The writing of this tale turns what could have been just another contemporary fantasy into something stronger, sharper and more filled with wonder.  I love the fact that our heroine is a young girl seeking for rational explanations even while hip deep in the fantastic–that she is a fairly ordinary child in appearance who suffers from asthma–it takes her a while to believe in her own strength.  I loved the play on names: our Marvelous Boy had his name taken from him, and thus has no actual name in all the while we know him.  But Ophelia isn’t just Ophelia, she is Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard a weighty name for a girl who seems unable to bear up under it at first–but that changes by the end of the story.

Concerns or Issues:  For me as an adult reader, the identity of our villain is fairly obvious from early on in the tale, even though our heroine doesn’t realize the truth.  While it didn’t detract from the story, this may keep it from being as satisfying a read for older children who will catch on.  Other than this I really can’t think of anything.

Wrap Up:  This is one of those books I’m liable to be thrusting into the hands of anyone I know who loves children’s fantasy and is looking for something new.  I’ve a few readers at my library in mind for this book as soon as it hits the shelves.  Hope others will find it worth reading as well!

Note: An advanced reader copy was provided by the publisher.

Publisher: Knopf Books for Young Readers

Publication Date: January 2014   

ISBN13:      9780385753548

Recommended for grades 4 and up.

Comments welcome! 

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About Stephanie Whelan

I'm a children's librarian with a life-long love of all things science fiction and fantasy.

Posted on January 4, 2014, in General Posts, Reviews and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This one is on my TBR pile and looks really good. I’m glad you enjoyed it, even with your concerns, but I feel like that can be common when we read kids books as adults. Looking forward to reading this one myself.

    • That’s pretty much how I feel. I noticed it enough to want to mention. (brain shouting –“that’s the baddie right there, Ophelia!”) but I think it’ll be just fine for its intended audience.

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