From the initial premise I was intrigued by The Cabinet of Earths. It felt freshly different than a lot of the other children's and young adult lit coming out these days. The premise is fun and interesting…Maya is a 13 year-old girl who moves with her family to Paris when her father is asked to take a new job. She feels isolated, awkward and nervous. Her mother has cancer and although she tries to put on a good face, Maya is very worried about her mother. Maya's younger brother James is magnetically amiable and quickly fits into their new life. This makes Maya feel all the more isolated and gives us a good jumping off point for a somewhat standard coming-of-age tale.
Instead of following a traditional mundane path, the story takes all sorts of twists and turns. Maya catches glimpses of strange things happening around her. She slowly begins to piece things together and realizes that the world around her isn't what it appears to be.
The initial chapter of the book introduces the magical device from which the book derives its title. The "Cabinet of Earths" is quite literally a cabinet full of Earth. It has a shimmery glass front and is filled with jars and jars of Earth. The initial chapter borders on the gruesome side as we learn just what that Earth is all about…it hearkens back to the ancient adage "dust thou art and unto dust thou shalt return." In a strange melding of magic and science, certain people have discovered how to remove the "Earth" from a person and thus grant them immortality. The Cabinet is the holder of these Earths.
As Maya stumbles on more and more aspects of the mystery we find more and more disturbing revelations. The author does a fabulous job of weaving together a very intricate story. There are times when things felt a bit muddled and I hoped for a little more clarity, but at the same time I felt like my own confusion mirrored Maya's unsettling situation and so came across as a sort of metafictional element.
The book is often slow paced which is both a boon and a detriment. Because of the twists and turns in the plot, it's helpful to have the pace slow enough to give you a chance to try and unravel the knots. At the same time, the slow pace can border on boring at times when you want to speed along and try to figure out what happens next. It's a tricky balancing act. For me it worked most of the time. Once you get a hold on the plot line, it is very compelling and interesting and made me want to rush on. The interweaving of the Cabinet, Maya's family and the family controlling the Cabinet were very fun and interesting.
I especially loved the characters and the setting. I felt that both were well handled and a lot of fun. I've never been to Paris and I have no idea how accurate this book does at representing the roads and buildings (though the acknowledgements did point out some research). Personally I found the Parisian setting very vivid and fun such that even though I didn't have a good point of reference for the places indicated, I quickly felt accustomed to the location.
The characters were especially fun. Maya is a well rounded and interesting character full of nervous curiosity and a growing sense of self amid the hesitation and self-doubt of growing up. Her brother James was a little more one-dimensional as far as characters go but his personality and mannerisms made him a lot of fun. Maya's friend Valko was intriguing and mysterious and while I thought he was well done, I kind of wanted a little more from him. I really loved her "invisible" Cousin Louise…not so much for her characteristics (which were invisibly average) but for the way aspects of the plot pivoted on her existence. All of the plot threads that wound around Louise were fascinating to me.
As should be apparent, I really enjoyed this book. I have three small hesitations about giving this a hearty recommendation to everyone. The first two I mentioned above: 1) The plot is a little complex and twisted and easy to get lost at times. 2) The pacing of the story is a bit slow and (when combined with the twisting plot) could be off-putting. Both of those hurdles could be easily overcome and I look forward to reading Nesbet's next book to see her style improve and become even more engaging. She has great creativity and style that with a little tuning could likely become a "can't put it down" sort of book.
My third bit of hesitance in giving this a full recommendation is that the book gets a little gruesome at times. The cartoony cover art will make it appealing to younger crowds. It is set as a "middle-grader" book and that's probably appropriate…but sensitive readers may squirm at some of the imagery (we're talking about taking the Earth from people to make them immortal). There are some historical segments that deal with the witchcraft around creating the Cabinet. While these scenes could be something kids might see in a "Scooby Doo" style cartoon sometime, it's a testament to Nesbet's writing that they actually come off as quite vivid and just a bit scary…certainly more so than Scooby Doo. As such, I'd be a little wary about which kids I recommend read this book. I'm sure my 12 year old would be fine and my 10 year old would probably be alright too. But I certainly wouldn't recommend it to anyone younger (they'd probably get lost in the plot anyway…but that would be after they read the first chapter, which is quite creepy).
Overall this was a very fun read. There were a few slow patches but the plot was compelling enough to not only help me push through but make me want to read even faster. The characters and settings were vibrant and alive. The plot felt fresh and new and was just a lot of fun.
4 out of 5 stars
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