Friday, January 23, 2015

Review: "The Star of Kazan" by Eva Ibbotson

As a baby, Annika was abandoned in a mountain chapel. She loves her adoptive family--the servants who found her and the three eccentric professors they work for--and life in beautiful, peaceful Vienna. But she always dreams that her real mother will come find her.

Then, one day, her dream comes true.

Without warning, Annika is whisked away from the warmth and cheer of Vienna into a cold house of strangers. Her love for her long-lost mother wars with her sense that all is not well. These aristocrats eat worse than peasants, and creditors beat on their door in the middle of the night. Her new brother plays soldier and ties fireworks to his dog. The gypsy stablehand, Annika's only friend, is accused of theft. 

Meanwhile, the Viennese community she left behind investigates their own robbery--the stealing away of Annika by someone who could not possibly love her like they do.

3.5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Reading Eva Ibbotson's The Star of Kazan is like falling into pile of clean sheets warm from the clothes dryer. A welcome coziness, especially after the bout of mediocre-to-terrible books I read at the start of the year. 

It's always interesting to me to read literature aimed at a much younger audience, especially when it's my first time reading it. There is a different "weight" of storytelling involved, and the telling emphasizes sensory engagement.  

I don't have any lens of nostalgia through which to view this book. I rather wish I did, because I'm sure it would have become a favorite if I had read it in childhood. It has all the ingredients for a youthful daydream--parade horses and old castles, secret treasures and escapades with (shockingly well-portrayed) gypsies, cruel school headmistresses and food. So much food.

A warning, dear reader: have a snack handy while you read this book. You'll get hungry. 

I found no real flaw in The Star of Kazan. It's a simple but a delightful book, warming without being saccharine. It recalled how I felt about the Little House books, before having it pointed out how terrible this family is.

The book is a bit of a mystery, but the reader will most likely have it solved at once. Then it's only a matter of the characters catching up. Annika's perspective on the world is fun to share, especially once you learn to take her assessments with a grain of salt. (Best was her ongoing belief that the aristocracy in whose company she has landed live in cold houses and eat plain food on purpose, to toughen themselves up, when a more cynical eye would have noticed that these "aristocrats" were really just paupers.)

The Star of Kazan lacks staying power. For all of its gentle virtues, it's not a memorable read. I didn't put it down with strong mental images lingering, no reverberating lines of dialogue, no world-shifting perspective. It's just a pleasant book. If I were ever so unfortunate as to have children, however, I'd want a book like this on the shelf for younger readers to find and fall in love with. (Carolyn, this book's for you!)

There are worse things than a book about found families, horses, baking, and communities taking care of their own.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 4/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 1/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: fail
Content Warning: mention of suicide, elder abuse, animal cruelty

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