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Book Review: Serafina and the Twisted Staff by Robert Beatty

In which Thea reviews the second book in Serafina’s ongoing adventures

Title: Serafina and the Twisted Staff

Written by Robert Beatty

Genre: Dark Fantasy/Horror, Historical Fiction, Middle Grade, Speculative Fiction

Publisher: Disney Hyperion
Publication Date: July 2016
Hardcover: 384 Pages

Serafina and the Twisted Staff

Serafina’s defeat of the Man in the Black Cloak has brought her out of the shadows and into the daylight realm of her home, Biltmore Estate. Every night she visits her mother in the forest, eager to learn the ways of the catamount. But Serafina finds herself caught between her two worlds: she’s too wild for Biltmore’s beautifully dressed ladies and formal customs, and too human to fully join her kin.

Late one night, Serafina encounters a strange and terrifying figure in the forest, and is attacked by the vicious wolfhounds that seem to be under his control. Even worse, she’s convinced that the stranger was not alone, that he has sent his accomplice into Biltmore in disguise.

Someone is wreaking havoc at the estate. A mysterious series of attacks test Serafina’s role as Biltmore’s protector, culminating in a tragedy that tears Serafina’s best friend and only ally, Braeden Vanderbilt, from her side. Heartbroken, she flees.

Deep in the forest, Serafina comes face-to-face with the evil infecting Biltmore-and discovers its reach is far greater than she’d ever imagined. All the humans and creatures of the Blue Ridge Mountains are in terrible danger. For Serafina to defeat this new evil before it engulfs her beloved home, she must search deep inside herself and embrace the destiny that has always awaited her.

Stand alone or series: Book 2 in the Serafina series

How did I get this book: Review Copy from the Publisher

Format (e- or p-): Hardcover

**WARNING: This review contains mild but unavoidable spoilers for Serafina and the Black Cloak. If you have not read Book 1 and would like to remain unspoiled, LOOK AWAY.**

Review:

After defeating the man in the black cloak just a few months earlier, Serafina has found life has taken a new familiar kind of rhythm at the Biltmore Estate. While the well to-do members of the household work all day and slumber through the night, Serafina takes to the Biltmore’s hallways and secret passages continuing her duties as the C.R.C.–that is, the Chief Rat Catcher. Now, however, her night adventures are even more exciting as she begins to explore the dark Appalachian woods that surround the estate, always knowing that her mother and half-siblings are out there waiting for her.

For Serafina is no ordinary young girl or estate servant: she is a catamount, a mountain lion-human shape changer, though she has only known that truth for a short time. Having grown up in the human world, raised by a surrogate father and having no knowledge of her origins, Serafina is heartbroken to learn from her mother that she may always be locked in her human form–and worries that she will never truly belong anywhere. Certainly, she’s not like her Pa and the folk at the Biltmore with their daylight habits, their slow clumsiness, and their loudness. But she’s not quite like her mother and her half-siblings, creatures of the woods and the night, either.

Soon, however, Serafina has bigger worries on her mind. One winter’s evening, she spies a carriage drawn by four stallions tear through her woods, and watches as a man with silver eyes and a twisted staff emerges from within. Within moments, the eerie figure spots Serafina and sicks his bloodhounds on her, and she barely escapes with her life. Serafina knows one thing is certain: the man with the silver eyes and twisted staff has a dark and nefarious purpose, and all that Serafina cares about lies in his path of destruction.

Danger has come to the Biltmore once again; it is up to Serafina to stop the evil and protect her friends and family once more.

I adored Serafina and the Black Cloak, the first book in this historical dark fantasy Middle Grade series, so it was with great delight that I tore into this second novel from Robert Beatty. Serafina and the Twisted Staff begins a few short months after the dramatic events of book 1, with Serafina struggling to find her footing now that everyone in the Biltmore knows that she exists, and now that she knows of her own true heritage as a catamount. Serafina’s struggle in this second book is much more pronounced as she tries to find a place where she truly belongs. She isn’t a human and never will be, though she loves her Pa and her friend Braeden Vanderbilt very much and yearns to be a part of their world. At the same time, Serafina may be a catamount by birth, but she cannot change form, try as she might to do so with her mother. The woods, her mother tells her, are no place for a girl like Serafina, even though she is much more equipped to deal with its darkness and danger than any other human may be. So this is the Serafina we meet in book 2–a young girl who has homes in both worlds but feels comfortable in neither, and we watch as she grapples with her sense of strangeness and not belonging throughout the novel. Robert Beatty does a wonderful job of capturing Serafina’s frustration and fear–now that she has so much to lose, and her fear grows and grows–and he also tempers this fear with Serafina’s resolve not to conform or sacrifice her uniqueness, but to embrace her differences and hope her friends and family will do the same. It’s a powerful message of self-acceptance, and one of the things I love the most about Serafina as a character. Even when the road is horrible and there seems to be no way back from the terrible things that have happened, she always chooses to follow what she knows to be right in her heart. (Even if she runs away at first. We’re all human, right?)

While Serafina herself continues to be a powerful and inspiring young heroine–one who can catch rats with her bare hands and fight off the devil himself with her sheer force of will, no less!–another major draw to this series is the sense of dark magic and mystery that Beatty imbues in his unique, atmospheric setting. The Vanderbilt family’s North Carolina home, the sprawling Biltmore Estate nestled into the dark woods, is a real place with its own unique history, and Robert Beatty has taken pains to ensure that the estate is described in all of its majesty and glory in this series. (It worked on me–I sure want to go visit.) The Biltmore’s history plays a key role in the underlying mystery of The Twisted Staff, as does the magic in its surrounding woods. This story isn’t quite as terrifying as The Ma in the Black Cloak, but it certainly comes close–the weathered old man, his twisted staff, and his powers of sight and magic are all very, very frightening. This is a much bloodier book than its predecessor, as magic makes creatures and characters act in ways strange and horrible ways–Serafina barely escapes with her life several times, and is battle-scarred and bloody as a result.

The other important aspect of this series is the sense of friendship and the relationships that Serafina forges with others. In this second novel, Serafina’s friendship with Braeden Vanderbilt comes under strain when circumstances turn dire at the Biltmore–but the strength of their belief and faith in each other is unshakable as ever. I wish there had been more of Serafina’s Pa in this book, although the scenes he is in are wonderful and powerful. (There’s one particular scene between Serafina, Braeden, and her Pa that is just lovely near the book’s conclusion.) And, of course, there is Serafina’s fierce mother–who I again wish had a larger role–and two new characters that bode mentioning. There’s a feral boy, Waysa, who is more like Serafina than she knows; and there’s a well-dressed and rather snobbish young aristocrat named Lady Rowena, who… well, I’ll let you, dear reader, make your own discoveries so far as Lady Rowena is concerned.

While there are many good things about Serafina and the Twisted Staff, ther are some things didn’t quite work for me as well in this book–the reveal of the old man and his twisted staff makes a lot of sense, however I bristle at the implication that, once again, a pretty girl who is obsessed with frilly dresses is predictably evil, or at the end how Braeden repays Serafina’s heroics with… a creamy satin gown for a dinner party. (These don’t come off so crassly in the book, but yet, it still grates.) Also for the first time, we learn that catamounts are very territorial in this second book, and that their magic is Native American in origin (Serafina actually meets another of her kind in this novel, who is Cherokee, from the south). I don’t feel like this is explored very thoroughly and what little is there feels somewhat arbitrary and potentially appropriative–especially when considering the twisted staff’s magic and its creation in comparison to Serafina’s kin.

These issues voiced, I’m still very much a fan of the series, and I hope to read more of Serafina’s adventures very soon. (Especially with the events at the end of this second book!) Definitely recommended.

Notable Quotes/Parts: From Chapter 1:

Serafina stalked through the underbrush of the moonlit forest, slinking low to the ground, her eyes fixed on her prey. Just a few feet in front of her, a large wood rat gnawed on a beetle he’d dug up. Her heart beat strong and steady in her chest, marking her slow and quiet creep toward the rat. Her muscles buzzed, ready to pounce. But she did not rush. Swiveling her shoulders back and forth to fine-tune the angle of her attack, she waited for just the right moment. When the rat bent down to pick up another beetle, she leapt.

The rat caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of his eye just as she sprang. It was beyond her ken why so many animals of the forest froze in terror when she pounced. If death by tooth and claw came leaping at her out of the darkness, she’d fight.

Or she’d run. She’d do something. Little woodland creatures like rats and rabbits and chipmunks weren’t known for their boldness of heart, but what was freezing in sheer terror going to do?

As she dropped onto the rat, she snatched him up quicker than a whisker blink and clutched him in her hand. And now that it was well past too late, he started squirming, biting, and scratching, his furry little body becoming a wriggling snake, his tiny heart racing at a terrifi c pace. There it is, she thought, feeling the thumpty-thumpty of his heartbeat in her bare hand.

There’s the fight. It quickened her pulse and stirred her senses.

Suddenly, she could detect everything in the forest around her—the sound of a tree frog moving on a branch thirty feet behind her, the reedy buzz of a lonely timberdoodle in the distance, and the glimpse of a bat swishing through the starlit sky above the broken canopy of the trees.

It was all for practice, of course, the prowling and the pouncing, the stalking of prey and the snatching hold. She didn’t kill the wild things she hunted, didn’t need to, but they didn’t know that, darn it! She was terror! She was death! So why at the last moment of her attack did they freeze? Why didn’t they flee?

You can read the full excerpt online HERE.

Rating: 7 – Very Good, and I eagerly await book 3 in Serafina’s adventures.

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