Through the Looking Glass Children's Book Reviews



Betsy Cornwell
For ages 12 and up
Clarion Books, 2015   ISBN: 978-0547927718

Nicolette did not have a typical upbringing, and this was largely due to her mother, Margot, who was a brilliant inventor and mechanic. Using science, and a touch of fey magic, Margot built all kinds of devices. There were labor-saving machines for the household, and then she built little mechanical insects that her husband sold for considerable amounts of money.

Rather than sending her daughter to a finishing school, and rather than having some stiff governess tutor her, Margot taught Nicolette herself, and not surprisingly the bookish girl grew to love machines just as her mother did.

When Nicolette was only nine her mother died of a Fey’s croup, a disease that was mortal, unless the patient was treated with a remedy made out of the fey plant lovesbane. The problem was that by this time fey products were illegal in Esting, and Nicolette’s father, who was in favor of banning anything to do with the fey, refused to buy any lovesbane.

Not long after the death of his wife, Nicolette’s father got himself a new wife, a cold creature who had two vain, foolish, and spiteful daughters. Instead of being the loving mother and sisters that Nicolette wanted and needed, they were unkind and standoffish. When Nicolette’s father died she was summarily demoted from daughter of the house to servant. Her stepmother got rid of the only other servant they had, and Nicolette was given the job of running the whole household, and making clothes for her stepsisters as well.

Since the death of her father Nicolette has functioned in a “haze” of grief and loss. Then, on Nicolette’s sixteenth birthday, she finds a letter from her mother, and in it Margot tells her daughter how to get into her hidden workshop. Finally Nicolette has something in her life that makes her happy. In the workshop she finds many of her mother’s mechanical insects, her books, her supplies for building things, her tools, plans and designs, and a little mechanical horse called Jules.

Nicolette knows that Jules is just a machine, and yet there is something about him that suggests that he is more than that. He understands what Nicolette says, and conveys her wishes to the insects. Jules and his “minions” help Nicolette do many of the chores the “steps” give her to do, and she is thus able to focus on learning all about Margot’s projects and machines.

When Nicolette finds out that King Corsin is going to be hosting a Cultural Exposition which will showcase the “the advancement of Esting’s most brilliant inventors and artisans,” she decides that she will participate. Somehow. Perhaps if she can create something marvelous to show at the event she will finally be able to become a real inventor like her mother was.

While Jules and the insects work on making dresses for the stepsisters, Nicolette works on her projects, honing her skills, blowing glass, and coming up with potential designs for a project worthy of the Exposition. She starts making some beautiful beads and sneaks out to sell them at the Market in Esting City.

Nicolette is not in Esting City long before she is befriended by two young people, Caro and Finn, who let her share their table in the market. Caro is so sweet and eager to connect with Nicolette, which feels so alien to the girl who has been so alone for so long. Caro and Finn are also eager to help Nicolette with her efforts to gain her independence and freedom. Unfortunately, Nicolette’s stepmother finds Margot’s workshop and she and her daughters set about destroying the legacy that she left for Nicolette. They even destroy beautiful little Jules.

This unique retelling of the Cinderella story brings together elements of steampunk and magic to give readers an enthralling story about a girl who is determined to find a place for herself in the world, and to stay true to who she is and what she wants. Nicolette is a strong and inspiring young woman, a fairy tale hero who fights back when the world tries to bring her down.