The Vanishing Trick – Jenni Spangler
A great story with an appealing magic core and a strong premise that I can see easily becoming a film, and probably doing very well with its target of middle-grade (8 and up) readers. For me though it had some challenges, starting with Leander, one of the three children.
The story opens with Leander and the first chapter is exciting. Leander, starving, steals a pie to eat and ends up hiding in a strange carriage with weird contents – and an encounter with a threatening woman who tricks him into giving up control of his life to her. It seems Leander is the intended hero, a sort of Artful Dodger type who survives on his wits. Yet, as the story develops, he doesn’t quite pull it off, being rather wishy-washy at times and hard to cheer on. (There’s an episode where he tries and fails to steal a crucial item, which the children get later anyway. Nobody ever knows about his attempt and I was left wondering why that scene was even in the book.)
Then there’s the endless internal debate each child has about their captor, Pinchbeck. Initially the two other children Charlotte and Felix explain to Leander the dangerous situation they’re in, but after that and for most of the book, each child has his or her own doubts which they repeatedly churn over to themselves in their own minds – sometimes wavering from one page to the next – which starts to get irritating and repetitive.(Stockholm Syndrome only gets you so far.) It’s so obvious to the reader that Pinchbeck is evil that the children’s vacillation between trying to escape to save their lives and loyalty and guilt about doing this makes it hard to get deeply involved with them. (I found this mixed message of them reminding themselves repeatedly of “kind” acts, like provision of food and clothes, by their evil kidnapper, almost to the end of the book, rather disturbing; perhaps it’s intended to show the children have empathy for Pinchbeck, but should you have empathy with your abuser who you believe has killed other children?) From a purely storytelling standpoint it takes away a lot of the tension as the children try to escape.
I found the multiple points of view between the three children problematic. This jumps as often as a page apart and is signalled by a little scroll with the child’s name above it. The result is a lot of telling the reader what each child is thinking, rather than showing through action or conversation, and there’s a lack of jeopardy despite the threat of one of them vanishing for ever. They do a number of things separately and only towards the end does this start to get coordinated so though we’re told they think of each other as family, I didn’t really feel that emotional bond.
Finally, I didn’t understand why Pinchbeck, who can pull off the amazing magic of the vanishing trick, apparently can’t perform any other magic. There are other disconnects too, which I won’t describe as it would give away the story.
There a few proof-reading and editing issues as well – Isaak’s name appears as Isaac in the fairly crucial caption for the illustration of his brother, for example, and in one place we’re told something ostensibly for the first time but we’d been told the same thing just a few pages before. All the characters present as white.
Despite these things it’s a wonderfully imaginative story and I’d love to see it as a film.