Even though this was the second book in the trilogy, I was willing to give it a chance. What can I say? It caught my eye. After all, I read Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban before I read Philosopher’s Stone and till date think it’s the best of the HP series. The red and silver cover was also very arresting. But to be utterly convinced I checked the first line of the book. If that gets to me then, I’m game. It read: Much later, Titus was to remark that this must have been the only time in history when a dirty diaper could be said to have saved several lives. That’s it, I was hooked.
Before plunging in to the story, a few things. There are many elements that were familiar to all Fantasy readers. An eccentric family steeped in magic albeit it’s not the inherent power they have rather they depend on an acquired power from spells, magical objects etc. A rather old and haunting mansion. Household help who are clever and sympathetic towards the children. Slightly absent minded but generous and good-hearted parents. Trouble making kids. Ethically-devoid villains.
Let’s start with the characters. They are:
- Titus is the 12-year-old son of the Strega-Borgia family. He’s a whiz on the computer and is in constant battle with his sister Pandora.
- 10-year-old Pandora squabbles with her brother over many things, especially his obsession with computers, but couldn’t do without him.
- Damp is their 14-month-old sister who has a mind of her own especially when it comes to screaming.
- Luciano & Baci Strega-Borgia are temperamentally very different, and do have the occasional tiff, but are united in their love for each other and for their children.
- Mrs MacLachlan is the children’s Nanny, a clandestine witch.
- Latch the family butler.
- Sab, Ffup and Knot: the family pets and low-tech security system, a gryphon, a dragon and a Yeti respectively. They have good intentions, but can sometimes get quite hungry.
- Nona is the family’s long forgotten cryogenically frozen great great great grandmother.
Now for the story: The old and respected magical, quirky, bizarre, Italian family of Strega-Borgia live in an ancestral Scottish castle called StregaSchloss. The family castle’s roof is in ruin because it is expensive to maintain that kind of a castle nowadays. Water comes crashing down in the library one day. The family now has to move out of the house so that the roof can be fixed. They have to move into the only inn that has offered to take the family pets in, Auchenlochtermuchty Arms about 3 miles away. Pandora’s pets the spider Tarantella, who wears red lipstick, and rat, Multitudina, along with their cryogenically frozen great great great grandmother are left behind. To complicate matters, the builder who has been hired to repair the roof is in cahoots with the local bigwig who wants to take over their land. They destroy the roof beyond repair so that the Strega-Borgias sell it for far less than what it’s worth.
Titus’s clone experiment goes wrong thanks to Damp’s help. Titus and Pandora have to look after 500 naked clones of themselves to manage without letting any of the grownups know. To know how they manage to avoid both kinds of disaster, you have to read the book. (I’m not revealing the end. I am told that’s the hallmark of any good book review.)
I really enjoyed reading this book. But there were certain things that could have been improved upon like the plot. I felt that the first half of the book was a series of incidents. There was no cohesiveness to the whole thing. Many things were happening which were led to the climax by the hand of the invisible author. The problem was I could see that invisible hand. And certain questions were not answered at all. Like why was Titus trying to clone his sister considering that he always fought with her?
In the second half, the momentum of the events propels the plot towards its end. But there were no surprises at all. When I compare this to the HP or even Eva Ibbotson, I can see holes on the tablecloth.
On the up side, I found the writing very easy to follow and nothing too complicated to break your head over. It’s a good time pass. One more thing: there were also one theme which I thought was a very important one for children’s fiction: ecological conservation. The villains are shown opening flouting environmental laws and using plastic. I think this gets a positive message across. Read the book because you are a fan of fantasy not otherwise.