Source: purchased from Amazon
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, middle grade, young adult
Published by Red Wombat Studio on November 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository, Bookshop.org
Rosa Mandolini knows in her heart that her family are the greatest painters of magical illuminations in the city. But the eccentric Studio Mandolini has fallen on hard times and the future is no longer certain.
While trying to help her family, Rosa discovers a strange magical box protected by a painted crow. But when she finds a way to open the box, she accidentally releases the Scarling, a vicious monster determined to destroy the Mandolini family at any cost.
With the aid of her former best friend and a painted crow named Payne, it’s up to Rosa to stop the Scarling before it unmakes the magical paintings that keep the city running, and hopefully save her family in the process!
The Mandolini family are the best, and most eccentric, magical illumination painters in their village. They are all busy all the time in their separate cubbies, working magic into the special illuminations that make their village the truly magical place that it is.
A place where fires are prevented before they can break out, where the garbage doesn’t smell as long as it’s in the house, where the shingles don’t fall from the roof and the mice don’t get into the pantry.
Everything from the sublime to the ridiculous to the convenient to the necessary that is part and parcel of everyday life is enhanced and/or improved by the magic of illuminations, while bad and inconvenient problems are warded away by the same.
But 11-year-old Rosa Mandolini is too young to be a working part of Studio Mandolini. It seems like she will have the power to make illuminations, and she certainly seems to have the artistic talent necessary, but her time has not yet come.
Rosa is the only child in this house of adults. At the moment the story begins she’s bored out of her skull. Which is when, naturally and of course, the mischief begins.
Rose starts out determined to alleviate her boredom by exploring the treasure trove of family detritus stored haphazardly in the deepest corners of the basement. She should, perhaps, have been a bit more wary – but she’s not yet cognizant of that old saying about being careful what one wishes for.
She finds a box. A closed and sealed box. A box covered by an illumination that drives her away from the box AND does its level best to make her forget she found said box. But Rosa is determined, and she’s certainly not bored while puzzling over the equally puzzling box.
When she gets it open, boredom is the furthest thing from her mind. Opening the box releases two beings, the illustration of a crow who was its guardian, and the dangerous being that the crow and the box were meant to guard.
A being who has spent centuries locked in that box, plotting and planning all the things it can do and all the illustrations it can defile in order to bring down its hated enemy – the Mandolini family.
Rosa will just have to stop the ensuing chaos before her family’s reputation, their livelihood, and even their lives are destroyed. In order to make it happen, the Mandolini family is going to have to figure out how to do the one thing they’re famous for never doing. They’re going to have to all work together on one, singular, illustration.
Blending their eccentricities together will be more difficult than they ever imagined.
Escape Rating B: I picked up Illuminations because I was hoping for another incredibly awesome book like A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking. But Illuminations, unlike Defensive Baking, is truly aimed at a middle grade audience, while Defensive Baking was pitched just a bit older, at a young adult audience with a vibe that made it every bit as good for adults.
Also, Illuminations doesn’t begin just as war is breaking out, so it didn’t have the same kind of quick start that A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking did.
But Illuminations did remind me very strongly of something, and it took me a while to realize that something was the marvelous Disney movie, Encanto. Rosa, like Mirabel, was born into a family of magic workers, but does not have a power of her own – or at least not yet in Rosa’s case. Both families are ruled by the grandmother of the clan, and initially Rosa’s grandmother is every bit as strict as Mirabel’s.
It takes a while for Illuminations to pick up its pace, as it needs time to build the setup of the village, the magic and especially the use of illuminations to handle a surprising number of tiny but important tasks. We need to get immersed in how dependent the village is on those illuminations before we can appreciate just how devastating it is when so many of them abruptly fail.
Opening that box freed not one but two magical creatures. The Scarling who was trapped inside gives the story its desperation and its danger, while the guardian crow, Payne, provides both comic relief as well as a deep dive into the depths of grief and the difficulty of reconciling the good and bad sides of a person both loved and gone. (Payne is yet another of the author’s quixotic, witty and memorable talking animals, and practically flies off of every page in which he appears – usually with a shiny spoon in his beak.)
While the recommendations I’ve seen say that if I want more like A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking I’m probably better off picking up Summer in Orcus, I still enjoyed Illuminations once it got going.
The Scarling was an excellent monster for this story in that it made it easy to show small dangers that wouldn’t be too scary in the moment while letting the implications of just how big those small dangers could get spring fully formed into the minds of older readers while growing along with Rosa’s perceptions for the younger.
In the end, this turned out to be a lovely little story about the power of friendship – as Kingfisher’s stories often do – combined with some very interesting things to say about grief and regret and figuring out your own place in the world even if it’s not the place that the people around you have in mind. And that the wildest and most seemingly useless things – like a penchant for drawing radishes with fangs – can prove to be very useful after all.