Monday, June 1, 2015

Sara's Library: Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy by Karen Foxlee
Knopf 2014
Aurealis Award for Best Children's Fiction 2014 (nominee)
Grade: C

Summary from Goodreads: Unlikely heroine Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard doesn't believe in anything that can't be proven by science. She and her sister Alice are still grieving for their dead mother when their father takes a job in a strange museum in a city where it always snows. On her very first day in the museum Ophelia discovers a boy locked away in a long forgotten room. He is a prisoner of Her Majesty the Snow Queen. And he has been waiting for Ophelia's help.

As Ophelia embarks on an incredible journey to rescue the boy, everything that she believes will be tested. Along the way she learns more and more about the boy's own remarkable journey to reach her and save the world.

When I first read the synopsis of the book, I was very excited for this Snow Queen story.  A skeptical girl, a boy-out-of-time,  a mysterious museum, and the Snow Queen?  Yes, please!

Unfortunately, the parts don't quite fit together, resulting in what I found to be a rather disappointing read.  The only element of Mr. Andersen's classic fairy tale that remains is the Snow Queen herself, in the form of the museum curator, Miss Kaminski.  There is no troll, no mirror, and no female companion to help Ophelia with her quest.  Ms. Foxlee has taken only the most basic elements of the original tale and uses those elements (the ice palace and the queen) rather poorly.  Miss Kaminski reads more like a slightly more sinister version of Rocky and Bullwinkle's Natasha than a truly threatening villain.  Most of her scenes involve her trying to seduce Ophelia's recently widowed father or manipulating Ophelia's sister.  Her only truly evil act is her use of a soul-sucking machine on young girls (including the aforementioned sister).  

With the exception of the villain, the adults are portrayed as oblivious and unhelpful, which seems to be a common trend in modern children's literature.  Even Ophelia's adolescent sister does her best to channel Susan Pevensie and ignore Ophelia until it's nearly too late.  It would have been refreshing to have helpful adults in such a book for once.

As for Ophelia herself, she's very stodgy.  There is healthy skepticism, and then there is Ophelia's refusal to believe in magic when it is staring her in the face.  She's a rather flat character and, unfortunately, most of her characteristics are taken from the nerd stereotype: glasses, asthma (constantly using her "puffer"), extremely rational.  Had Ms. Foxlee done something to develop her character beyond these traits, Ophelia may have become likable, but as written, she's just annoying.

The titular Marvelous Boy and the passages narrating his capture by Miss Kaminski are the only sections of the novel that feel like the belong to a fairy tale.  The writing there has more character and less didacticism than that of the main narrative, and perhaps even a hint of whimsy.  If more of the book had followed the example of the Marvelous Boy, it would have been considerably better.

As it was, despite being fairly short in length, it felt much longer, except for the end, which was extremely anticlimactic.  I'm truly curious how this novel was nominated for any major fantasy awards, as there were definitely better middle grade fantasies in 2014.  I would not recommend this novel.

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