by Eva Ibbotson
Genre: Children's historical fiction
Source: library book
From the back cover:
Annika has never had a birthday. Instead she celebrates her Found Day, the day a housemaid and cook for three eccentric Viennese professors found her and took her home. There, Annika made a happy life in the servants' quarters and surrounded herself with friends, including the elderly woman next door who regaled Annika with stories about her countless admirers — especially the Russian count who gave her the legendary emerald, the Star of Kazan. And yet Annika still dreamed of finding her true mother. But when a glamorous stranger, [my edit] with papers that show she is [/edit] Annika's mother arrives and whisks her way ... [I am going to cut this one off too. I don't like the way that these blurbs build up expectations and/or make you think in a certain way about the plot of the story!]
I was rather disappointed with my last Ibbotson so I decided to try again. When I was wandering around the library with my daughter I spotted The Star of Kazan and started reading it while she picked out the books she wanted to check out. I managed to zip through four chapters in no time, which is a pretty good sign, so I brought the book home and finished in just a couple of days. It is a light, breezy, comfortable read with enough going on to keep your attention.
This book is a children's historical fiction story set in Europe before World War I - mostly Vienna. There is no fantasy element in the book, it is told straight - though it is definitely of the too-good-to-be-true verses nasty-to-the-core variety with no real shades of gray. Any adult reading the story should know where things are going, but it should be a good introduction to the whole historical fiction genre for a child.
Strangely it does involve a subject I just ranted about recently - the idea that all orphans dream of finding their birth parents - though at least with Annika I could sympathize with her (to a point - we did go blasting past that point late in the story.) There is a somewhat large cast of characters, all of whom are pretty straight forward - I liked Zed and Stefan the best - and they generally have some depth to them, which is nice. Annika is a good protagonist, though I wanted to grab her and give her a good shake a couple of times for being either too dense for her own good or too passive (for the record, I don't actually do that sort of thing, but that doesn't stop me from imagining it.) The story does include the concepts of class and aristocracy, laying them out nicely for a child to start coming to grips with. Another thing that I appreciate is that the villain(s) of the piece has/have a reason for their behavior - no random B-grade scenery chewers this time.
The real magic of the story lies in Ibboson's descriptions of Vienna - the everyday life there and the sense of time and place - that is what carried the story for me. I also liked information was trickled out subtlety, that there was some gentle misdirection in the story and that the reader is not beaten over the head with clues like we were in Platform 13. Made for a more satisfactory story.
I do think that Ibbotson has a problem with writing endings. It is rather odd - the good guys and the bad guys are sorted out very clearly by the ending of her books (usually well before that), but she doesn't seem to give you the kind of satisfying closure that such children's stories generally demand (at least in books I have read so far). Those who have harmed tend to be unbelievably sweet and kind to those who have harmed them - it's not that I am demanding retribution but honestly you think that they would at least get a bit mad at their persecutors and, if you have to maintain the golden aura of niceness, at least make sure that they can't harm anyone else in the future.
I enjoyed reading The Star of Kazan much more than The Secret of Platform 13 but, strangely, somewhat less than Which Witch (in so far as I can remember). Four claws - not sure I would ever want to re-read it, but it has inspired me to read more about pre-war Vienna.