(Note: This review contains major spoilers.)
In the dark of night, she creeps through the basement. She protects her territory, silently hiding in corners until her prey appears. When a rat is finally foolish enough to show itself, she pounces.
Serafina, the 12-year-old C.R.C. (Chief Rat Catcher) of the Biltmore Estate, secretly lives in the dark of the basement with her father, a workman at the house. But the sly and mysterious girl is not, despite her creeping, the most threatening creature in the manor. As Serafina begins to discover the dark and mystical nature of her birth, she witnesses the evil lurking in her territory: a man in a black cloak who is curiously linked with the disappearances of visiting children.
While hunting rats in the kitchens, Serafina witnesses the “disappearance” of Clara Brahms, a little blonde girl in a yellow dress. Chased down by a man in a black cloak who smells of rotting flesh and rattles with a strange magic, Clara runs to the basement. When the man catches her, he envelops her in the cloak and she vanishes. Though Serafina follows the man and Clara, she is unable to prevent Clara’s kidnapping and barely escapes the man herself.
Serafina takes it upon herself to uncover the identity of the Man in the Black Cloak. However, she must do so without revealing her own existence to the Vanderbilts (the rich owners of the estate). She befriends the Vanderbilts’ orphaned nephew, Braeden, and his dog, and together, they investigate the elusive man and the evil cloak.
The author of “Serafina and the Black Cloak,” Robert Beatty, lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, close to the Biltmore Estate. His passion for the estate and the forests and mountains surrounding it, along with their mythology, are clearly portrayed in his book, providing a strong sense of place. The characters, especially the title character, also are strong and believable. Serafina is a quirky little thing: She hunts rats and wears rags, is fiercely loyal and brave, and is not entirely human. Her amber eyes and animal-like instincts and features make Serafina unlike any character I’ve ever read. I spent the majority of the book guessing at what exactly she is, only to be surprised in the end.
The mythological background Beatty incorporates into the book is an irreplaceable feature. The stories and creatures described, though historically connected to the Eastern United States, feel original and unique. I was enthralled with the descriptions of shapeshifting creatures and demonic inventions which, though magical, melded with the story and setting in a satisfying way.
Though I enjoyed Serafina’s adventures overall, I did notice a few weak points—which may boil down to personal preference. I had an extremely hard time immersing myself into the beginning of the book because I found Beatty’s way of writing the characters’ strong southern accents off-putting to read. Though this effect lessened as the book went on and lent a reality to the setting and characters, it was laid on a bit thickly for my taste.
The ending of the book wasn’t necessarily weak, it just seemed too perfect. The evil cloak was not physically easy to defeat, but the lead-up to the climax was much more satisfying than the resolution. All the ends were neatly tied, the children returned to their parents, and Serafina’s questions answered within a few short chapters. Compared to the rest of the book, which moved at a more languid and detailed pace, the rushed nature of the ending made it somewhat unsettling.
The nature of “Serafina and the Black Cloak” does make it a questionable choice for younger readers. Even I had some trouble reading the scarier parts of the book; I often had to stop and look over my shoulder as I read a particularly creepy scene. The evil forces at work in the book make it a sort of children’s horror story. The cloak itself is a demonic spirit and the man who wears it kidnaps children in the dark of night. There are several grisly fights in the book, at least one ending in death. And though good triumphs over evil, Serafina uses violence just as much as the evil characters.
Along with the horror and violence, parents might find the mythology of the book unsettling. The majority of this mythology concerns the catamount—a creature whose soul is split in half, into mountain lion and human. Along with the demon of the cloak, parents may find this mythology, along with a distinct lack of Christian themes, problematic.
Though written for middle-school-age children, “Serafina and the Black Cloak” had me jumping in my seat. However enjoyable and strong the characters and story were, the nature of the evil portrayed and the scary aspects of the book had me questioning the appropriateness of the story for its intended audience.
Image copyright Disney-Hyperion. Review copy obtained from Amazon.
Samantha Van Slyke is a student at Grove City College.