Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty is a thrilling tale of mystery and adventure set at the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC in 1899. Having lived in Asheville and visited the house several times, there was no way I was going to pass up a chance to read this. (Also it's MG fantasy, always a bonus for me.)
Serafina lives in secret in the basement of the Vanderbilt's spacious vacation home. She has lived there most of her life. Her father worked on the house as it was being built and is the mechanic who runs the massive generator and keeps the electricity going. Serafina is the chief rat catcher, slipping through the halls of her massive home secretly and quietly. She is light on her feet, sees well in the dark, and is quick enough to catch the vermin and keep them out. Serafina knows she if different and strange. Her father insists she stay hidden. But all that changes when one night Serafina witnesses a horrible crime. A little girl, a guest in the house, is fleeing from a cloaked predator who seems to consume her whole in his cloak before Serafina eyes. She soon learns that the young Clara is not the first person to go missing. In a daring move, Serafina decides to investigate the matter herself and meets the young nephew of the Vanderbilts, Braeden. The two children investigate the matter together. They know Braeden is the next victim and Serafina is determined to keep him, the only friend she has ever had, safe. To do so, she must face the evil that is stalking them and confront the truths about herself and her mysterious past.
Serafina is a bold and decisive heroine who doesn't always follow directions, but does what she believes to be right and good. The story focuses on the mystery of the cloak, who is wielding it, and what exactly it does, but through this we also get to see Serafina's inner struggles. She wants to fit in but knows she doesn't. She is desperate to understand who she is and where she comes from, but is also afraid of the answers she might find. I liked how the relationship between her and Braeden developed. Both children are loners and so their friendship is not as unrealistic as it otherwise might be for a barely servant and member of the family to have. Braeden's character is not as defined or nuanced as Serafina, but he has an interesting backstory and serves his purpose in the book well.
Beatty beautifully sets the scene for Serafina's tale. He does an excellent job of describing the house and the surrounding land and forest. How dark, forbidding, and dangerous the forest can be gives the story an eery feel. Added to this is the intense harrowing events that keep the reader flipping pages to see what happens next. The action is intense and there are scenes that involve blood and gore. The peril feels very real and the stakes for Serafina are high. It is an intense yet fun read, perfect for summer. There is a good balance between scary and humorous, but this is definitely a book for kids who are comfortable with creepy stories and aren't afraid of the dark.
As an adult reader, I found the end to be a little too perfect and a bit saccharine. This was particularly disappointing to me as I really enjoyed the book up until that point. There seemed to be a definite difference it quality of the writing as everything was tied into an extremely neat and tidy bow. Children readers will probably not have this issue as much, and I can see this becoming a favorite for many. It's definitely a must have for upper elementary classroom and school libraries.
I read an ARC provided by the publisher, Disney-Hyperion, via NetGalley. Serafina and the Black Cloak is on sale July 14th.