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In an east-coast U.S. city, sometime in the 1800s, three children who have never previously met each other have a strange adventure together. Together and separately, the face a series of challenges that may determine their future happiness, their family’s welfare, their personal survival, and/or the fate of a nature sanctuary adjacent to the city. All of these destinies are caught up together, intertwined, and depend on the qualities of courage, resourcefulness, and friendship in each of them, qualities that bring them together in spite of their differences.
Giuseppe and Frederick are both orphans. Frederick escaped a hideous life in Mrs. Treeless’s workhouse, thanks to his mechanical talents and the kindness of a clockmaker, who made him his apprentice. Still, Frederick hasn’t learned to accept and trust his master’s love, and so he labors in secret to build a clockwork man. He worries that if he doesn’t figure out how to make the automaton’s head, he will never pass the guild examination to be a journeyman clockmaker.
Giuseppe, meanwhile, longs to go back to his native Italy, from which he was taken against his will when an uncle sold him to the cruel padrone whom he now serves as a slave. With his battered old fiddle, Giuseppe busks for coins on the street with little to hope for except a bowl of gruel and a bed in a dormitory full of boys as bad off as himself. Unless he can save enough money to buy passage back to Italy, Giuseppe has little hope to escape from this harsh life.
Hannah, at least, still has her parents and a pair of much younger sisters. But she is the breadwinner of the family, since her stonemason father suffered a disabling stroke and her mother must nurse him day and night. Hannah’s career as a hotel maid threatens to be short, however, when the head maid takes a dislike to her. The mysterious lady in the penthouse suite makes a pet of her, but this seems unlikely to help when a family medical crisis forces Hannah to take desperate steps.
Things start to change for these three children when a green violin with an exquisite, singing tone, washes ashore after a shipwreck. As Giuseppe bewitches crowds with the music of this instrument, he begins to hope for escape. But escape will not come in the way he expects, nor does the magic necessarily lie where he thinks it does. About the same time, Hannah grows interested in the rumor that a rich guest who died in the hotel may have left a treasure hidden in a secret chamber on the top floor. And Frederick risks stealing a marvelous object from a fiercely-guarded museum, hoping to learn not only how to make his clockwork man tick but also who his mother was, and why she left him at the orphanage.
As these children’s separate quests become tangled up together, other strange people and things are drawn in as well: a deadly predator, a spirit medium, an ancient lady who talks to plants, a performance of Verdi’s opera La Traviata, a labyrinth of secret passages, an untamed wilderness only steps away from the city’s streets, a kindly old priest with the will to change the world, and a Russian mercenary with a heart of gold.
In his debut novel, Matthew Kirby conjures up a world of danger, wonder, mystery, and adventure, deftly weaving together multiple story lines with a curiously effortless blend of historical fiction, weird fantasy, and social criticism that pulls up just short of Steampunk. His imperfect but sympathetic characters face hardships, tough moral choices, and an extra-strong dose of most young adults’ agony in discovering who they are and what really matters to them. He manages all this with grace and a stir of infectious emotion. Readers who enter this book will come out interested in what its author might do next. And behold, his second book is titled Icefall.