Some things are best left hidden.
The scrap of paper taken from the dying conjurer’s coat is one of them.
Hold your breath, because the little coachman with the razor sharp knife is coming.
The Toymaker will touch your heart and haunt you forever.
Mathias and his conjurer grandfather work for a downmarket travelling circus run by the miserly and cruel Anna-Maria and cowardly and cruel Lutsman. When Mathias’s grandfather sees a strange man in the audience of one of his shows, he suffers a fatal heart attack but before he dies, he tries to destroy a scrap of paper hidden in his conjuring coat – a scrap that Mathias saves and hides. Soon after, the strange man – Dr Leiter and his strange dwarf coachman – buy Mathias from the circus. They want the scrap of paper and will use any means to get it.
Mathias finds himself thrown into a nightmare world of sinister puppets that move by themselves, murder and intrigue. His only allies are Katta (a serving girl who saves his life), Koenig (a smuggler who thinks that solving the mystery will make him rich) and Stefan (Koenig’s brother). But there are tensions within the group that threaten them all and a terrifying secret that Leiter will risk everything to keep.
De Quidt’s novel is a chilling, gothic horror filled with treachery, evil and shivers. It is very dark – there is plenty of death and while the violence is described sparsely, it nevertheless leaves a lingering impression that is assisted by Gary Blythe’s exquisite and atmospheric illustrations.
Mathias’s slow unveiling of his family history and his grandfather’s secret creates an internal conflict as he struggles to work out who he is and his place in the world, which keeps him sympathetic. Also, while he’s frightened by what happens to him, he doesn’t let it stop him which keeps his courage credible. Katta is also complex and her history with Stefan gives the story a real edge – particularly given the lengths that it drives her to.
Doctor Leiter and his coachman, Valter, are suitably creepy and ruthless villains, although I would have liked to have known more about the motivation behind their actions. Special mention also has to go to the puppets – particularly Marguerite, a puppet who can tell if you’re telling the truth or lying.
Although the story is completed by the end of the book, there are enough loose ends for a sequel and I would definitely want to read more about Mathias and Katta to see what happens to them next.
This is one of the creepiest YA horrors I’ve read in a while – mostly due to the combination of chilling walking puppets and a psychopathic dwarf with a razor sharp knife. Although it doesn’t glory in violence there is a lot of death and darkness, which more sensitive readers may want to be aware of.
Cross-posted to cool_teen_reads and yalitlovers.