Serafina and the Black Cloak

Novel: Serafina and the Black Cloak | Buy HereRelease Date: July 14, 2015Publisher: Disney-HyperionFormat: PaperbackSource: Bought

“Never go into the deep parts of the forest, for there are many dangers there, and they will ensnare your soul.”Serafina has never had a reason to disobey her pa and venture beyond the grounds of the Biltmore estate. There’s plenty to explore in her grand home, although she must take care to never be seen. None of the rich folk upstairs know that Serafina exists; she and her pa, the estate’s maintenance man, have secretly lived in the basement for as long as Serafina can remember.But when children at the estate start disappearing, only Serafina knows who the culprit is: a terrifying man in a black cloak who stalks Biltmore’s corridors at night. Following her own harrowing escape, Serafina risks everything by joining forces with Braeden Vanderbilt, the young nephew of the Biltmore’s owners. Braeden and Serafina must uncover the Man in the Black Cloak’s true identity . . . before all of the children vanish one by one.Serafina’s hunt leads her into the very forest that she has been taught to fear. There she discovers a forgotten legacy of magic, one that is bound to her own identity. In order to save the children of Biltmore, Serafina must seek the answers that will unlock the puzzle of her past.

During the summers, I've previously been a counselor for a rowdy bunch of sixth-graders (usually) in a valley in North Carolina. Not only does it give me an immense appreciation for the surrounding area, but I can always tell what's hot in middle grade based on what my campers are reading -- and fighting over. Serafina and the Black Cloak has always been a book that's been on my list, but one that I'd never quite gotten around to before now.I am a fiend for the Blue Ridge Mountains (and Asheville, especially.) Nowadays, living in small town Virginia makes me love the mountains so much more -- and I love books that depict that same hunger for the woods! While Serafina and the Black Cloak is more about the Biltmore Estate rather than the forest proper, any nods to Asheville get me hyped up. Also, after the hell of a midterm season I've had, I wanted some middle grade to soothe my nerves and immerse me in a story.Serafina as a character is significantly odder than most middle grade characters, and refreshing. For one, she's missing fractions of her bones -- making her animalistic, and able to hide in cramped spaces. She starts out the book by catching rats and releasing them into the tangled forest outside. She was fiery and also deeply insecure, with a loneliness that struck me.That in itself lends an otherworldly quality to the events of the book, particularly over the first half before the plot really gets going. I loved that it's eerie, but she is still approachable; I felt for her, and appreciated her childlike nature. I enjoyed how logical and practical she is, while still getting swept away in the grandness of the Biltmore.(On that note, I was pleasantly surprised by the details and admiration sprinkled in for the Vanderbilts and the Biltmore. I'd like to poke around the history a little more at some point. Also, I loved the tender way in which Serafina compared the Vanderbilts' wealth to her own.)I loved Serafina's dynamic with her father, and that relationship drove a lot of the book for me. Both of them had flawed reasons for doing what they did, and you got a sense for the fierce loyalty underlying their bond. Their quirky charm and how they operated today felt very much like a team, and that's a sweet pull I hadn't felt much since Letters from Rapunzel.I would have liked to have seen more from other characters, especially as Serafina was sorting through gentlemen at the Biltmore to try and figure out who was the nefarious villain. The suspicions she had didn't seem founded on much, and the characters all seemed pretty one-dimensional.Admittedly, the plot didn't do as much for me as I'd expected. To be fair, that could be due to the amount of insanely good MG I've read lately. But there was a pretty straightforward series of events, and the culprit was laid out neatly enough to dissolve the tension. I figured it out less than a hundred pages in, and I didn't feel like there was enough else going on to really keep me captivated.My hope in that regard is that this, as a first book, lays out some of the groundwork for more complex plot devices and relationships in later books. That might be optimistic, but Serafina and the Black Cloak may have been too clear for my reading taste. Maybe some time would have helped -- if the story would have taken place over a longer span rather than a week. Even if her backstory had been expanded upon?With that being said, I did enjoy the atmosphere. It was gloomy and strange, with some bizarre charm thrown in. I especially enjoyed Serafina's meditations about animals, and the connections that humans have to them. With that being said, the mystery itself didn't do much for me and the characters could have been fleshed out more. I'd recommend it to younger readers looking to get swept away a little bit -- but maybe not for the clever one looking to have their mind deeply engaged.It's a weird mix because it's creepy enough to feel like it should be upper middle grade, but with the plot of a younger middle grade. I know this review is on the shorter side, and it's because as a whole, I was just looking for more.