Serafina and the Black Cloak: Plot problems outweigh engaging protagonist

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSerafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty middle grade fantasy book reviewsSerafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty

Serafina and the Black Cloak, a Middle Grade book by Robert Beatty, has its moments, but a thin plot, a meandering middle segment, and several gaps of logic/plausibility come close to outweighing its positives, and probably will outweigh them for any readers older than middle grade.

Set at the opulent Biltmore Estate in 1899 (and having been there, oh my, is it opulent), the story is centered on a sudden rash of disappearances amongst the children at the Estate. Serafina, is the young daughter of the mechanic at the Estate, and the two of them, for reasons that are a mystery to Serafina, live secretly in the basement of the mansion. While her father is well known to Vanderbilt (her dad is responsible for maintaining the dynamo that provides the home with the then new-fangled electricity), Serafina’s existence is known to none. Their secret, however, is threatened when Serafina witnesses a man in a scary black cloak “disappear” a young girl by swallowing her in his cloak. Barely managing to escape, Serafina soon finds herself entangled in trying to solve the mystery of the frightening stranger, an entanglement that brings her to the notice of Vanderbilt’s young nephew, Braeden, now staying with his aunt and uncle after his entire family was killed in a fire.

To start with the good, Serafina herself is an engaging character, whose combination of innocence, pluck, and straightforwardness will win over most young readers easily. They will also relate well to the coming-of-age nature of the story, which manifests itself on several levels. One is simply her age, putting her on the cusp of childhood and young adulthood. Another layer is how she has been sheltered and protected by her father and now must enter a new world filled with strangers, many of whom are her social betters, creating a sense of alienation and a fear that she will be judged “different,” a situation any young teen can wrap their heads around. Add in the first tentative motions toward friendship, and that with a member of the opposite sex, and learning that one’s parents are not exactly as one thought they were, and you have a few more layers young readers can respond easily to. A nice touch is that Braeden, despite his coming from a backyard as different from Serafina’s as one can imagine, shares many of her same fears; he too feels awkward around others, has no true friends, and does not yet know his place in the world. And while Serafina’s mother is a complete mystery to her (a mystery that is resolved in the book), having disappeared well before Serafina can recall her, the tragedy that left Braeden an orphan puts him in a similar position.

Serafina’s father, meanwhile, is a solid enough character, if a pretty typical “stalwart loving parent” type. Other characters are thin, but as they play only minor roles, that isn’t much of an issue… save for the villain, but as that’s the big mystery, I won’t say anything about it, save that the mode of villainy, and the imagery surrounding it, is nicely creepy, with Beatty showing a deft touch at those gothic elements. He also does a nice, if somewhat on-the-nose job, of presenting the reader with several red herrings as Serafina tries to deduce if the villain is one of the gentlemen or servants in the Estate and if so, which.

As for the negatives. One frequent issue I had was plausibility, stopping several times to make margin notes on how a particular scene or statement was just too hard to buy. For example, much is made of Serafina’s different appearance, both in terms of her body (her eyes, her bone structure, etc.) and her apparel (a dirty old shirt of her dad’s tied at the waist), and yet she manages to run along with the other children without any hue or cry. In the same vein, issues of logic or internal contradictions cropped up now and then, as when a major fight occurs without waking up a nearby character until just the right moment. It’s possible that some of these moments might glide by a middle grade reader, but besides the fact that it doesn’t really matter, there are enough of them that even younger readers will have one or more times when they question what is happening. Compounding this problem is that one of the largest plausibility concerns comes with the resolution.

Beyond these issues, while the book’s pace is generally smooth and quick, it grinds to a halt in a long segment with Serafina out in the forest. The whole scene is too long, is beset by those above issues of plausibility, and throws off the entire pace.

The strong main character might go a good way toward offsetting some of the book’s problems with plot and pace, but it’s a close call, and with so much excellent MG and YA out there, it’s hard to recommend Serafina and the Black Cloak despite its likable character. It would be interesting to see a second effort from Beatty though.

Publication date July 14, 2015. Age Range: 8 – 12 years. Grade Level: 3 – 7. Disney Hyperion presents an exciting new novel for children & adults: a spooky historical mystery-thriller about an unusual girl who lives secretly in the basement of the grand Biltmore Estate. “Never go into the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul.” Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of Biltmore Estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, but she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember. She has learned to sneak and hide. But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity before all of the children vanish one by one. Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who’s been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the “Notable Essays” section of Best American Essays. His children’s work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he’s not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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9 comments

  1. How disappointing, because it’s such a nice set-up!

  2. I agree with your concluding statement, Bill–this is such a promising set-up and concept that I’m hoping Beatty keeps writing and strengthening his craft.

    • just your average southern kid /

      Agreed. The second book in the series, Serafina and the Twisted Staff was recently released and I believe there are two more to come.

  3. WHAT!?! IT WAS THE BEST BOOK EVER HOW DARE U SAY IT WAS ONLY FOR THE MIDDEL SCHOOL KIDS EVEN MY DAD LIKES IT!!!!!!!!!!!

    • Well, that’s one of the many joys of books–we all respond differently!

      • just your average southern kid /

        Thank you, Bill, for your rational and professional response to Alyssa’s comment. Many people don’t respond in such a way as you did to their readers’ comments, and it’s always refreshing to see someone who does. And your comment was so true as well! :D

  4. This story’s real value is that it is sure to capture youngsters who have not yet discovered the joy of reading. Any 10 year old’s imagination will be set on fire and the door opened to a lifetime of enjoyment.

  5. Alais Marie Marrero Rodriguez /
    I love it! I could not get my eyes of it until I was done.

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