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Karl is the clockmker's apprentice drinking at the inn, desperate with fear because he hasn't made the customary clockwork figure for the town clock to mark the end of his apprenticeship.
Luckily, attention is drawn from him by the Fritz the writer, who tells a chilling story about a sinister clockmaker called Dr Kalmenius & how his diabolical inventions come to the aid of the royal family when the baby prince dies.
But here our story takes a satisfying twist as Fritz is interrupted by his own creation: the evil clockwork-maker himself enters the inn & offers Karl a dangerous solution to his troubles. But Dr Kalmenius isn't the only fictional character to appear out of the night, & as the plot thickens the horror is turned to a happy ending by Gretl, the innkeeper's kindly daughter.
This is an ingenious book that thrills its readers while also giving them lots to ponder. I love the way that the story we read & Fritz's story merge together, & also at the same time the writer regularly intersperses the text with his own thoughts to help children think about the story from a literary point of view - to see the mechanisms behind it, if you like. When Karl once more is short-tempered with the friendly inn cat, in a little box Pullman writes, 'trouble will come of this, you mark my words. It always pays to be polite, even to dumb creatures.' And earlier,'Now we're getting to the heart of it. This is Dr Kalmenius's philosophy. This is what he wants Karl to believe... But there's a flaw in it...' Many of Pullman's interjections accompany ghostly pen-&-ink drawings that give the book an eerie, period feel.
Clockwork is the theme of this book in more ways than one: the tale is set in the days when time 'used to run by clockwork' rather than quartz. We're told it was a 'series of events, all fitting together like the parts of a clock,' although this isn't a cheery thought: we're told in the preface of a clock that 'there's something frightful in the way it keeps on going at its own relentless pace' & the mainspring of an alarm clock is 'sharp enough to draw blood.'
It's all very dark but wonderfully gripping, with a fantastic fairytale ending. it's a meaty, many-layered story that I had to read several times to completely get my head around, & I like very much the fact that it's such a rich & rewarding story but doesn't talk down to its readers. I would say it's suitable for children aged 8-12 upwards, although I thoroughly enjoyed it too!
This is a traditionally based twisted tale that has a distinctly macabre quality to it, where fantasy is met by a haunting reality.
It's fairly short as Philip Pullman's novels go (compared to the Northern Lights trilogy) but it's anything but easy to read. The plot thickens at every turn and you sometimes have to read back to check that you're in the fantasy part or the reality.
A parallel is drawn at the start of the book between Fritz the story teller and Karl the clockmaker's apprentice. Neither character has finished their work that is to appear in the public domain, with literally no time to finish it.
Karl starts his gruesome story which is based in reality about the mechanisation of a real boy, but mid-tale, he introduces a character, Dr Kalmenius who was an expert in mechanisation. Who should walk through the door of the dimly lit inn but the apparently invented Dr Kalmenius himself, looking very real indeed. Typical local reaction there - a deafening silence and a quick evacuation. The story doesn't get finished.
There are many questions raised by the appearance of Dr Kalmenius. He brings with him a tiny clockwork soldier who could be called Terminator instead of Sir Ironheart. He is triggered by a word and doesn't stop until the person who utters it is dead. Unfortunately for him, Karl is so desperate for a figure for his clock -remember the one he hasn't finished- that he steals the innocent looking figure, and pays the price.
It's hard to think that the book could have anything but a brutal ending but that's not the case. Gretl, the frail and tiny girl who lives at the inn saves the day and proves that you can give all of your heart and still keep it, a theme which runs throughout the book.
I have read this book to my Year 6 class of 10 and 11 year olds and it wasn't smooth sailing. We had to do a lot of analysis of the story working out what was truth and what was reality. It has a remarkably emotional ending that, once again, required a box of tissues for me. Well done Philip Pullman, reducing a primary teacher to an emotional blob in front of her class, that's got to be worth a prize!