Looking back, it always seems like the books and TV shows available for younger people are so much better than what was available to me. Maybe some of them just seem that way to me and it's not actually the case. But I do know that I never had anything quite like Jeremy de Quidt's "The Toymaker" available to me back then because, believe me, I would have remembered.
There is a toymaker who, frustrated with toys that run down, is attempting to put a real heart into a doll, so that it would keep going constantly. Far away, there is a conjuror called Gustav, who hides in a travelling circus because he hides a secret that some people would happily kill him for. His grandson, Mathias, with no-one else to care for him, hides too, wondering what this secret may be.
One day, just after a mysterious stranger appears at the show, Gustav has a fatal accident. This stranger, Dr Leiter, verifies that Gustav is who he suspects, but after failing to find what he seeks, he buys Mathias from Lustmann in the hope that the secret may have been transferred across from Gustav to Mathias and he can find out what it is.
However, Leiter hadn't counted on the greed of Lustmann's wife, Anna Maria nor on the tenacity of Mathias and the servant girl Katta, who manage to evade his dwarf servant Valter and escape. The two children find their way into the hands of a man called Koenig who, intrigued by the secret and by the amount of money Leiter is willing to spend to find it, takes Mathias along to help him unravel the secret.
This is a beautifully dark story, very much in the Neil Gaiman mode, although missing some of his fantastical twists. Many of the characters are hiding secrets, which blurs the disctinction between good and evil and it's only the innocence of Mathias that really gives much of a clue to which side we should be on. Even then, his companions do things that you wouldn't associate with the traditional hero behaviour, which makes it a little tougher to sympathise with their aims and blurs the line between the supposed good and bad a little more.
However, this does give the characters far more realistic behaviour than in many books. Even Katta and Stefan, characters supposedly on the side of good, harbour thoughts of revenge which they even sometimes act upon, which isn't often the case in a story such as this. As is usual in books and films though, it's the bad characters who are the most fun and Marguerite, Leiter's lie detector doll, whilst a very minor character, was a wonderful touch and despite never speaking a word, she had the best line in the book.
Whilst I enjoyed the dark, gothic feel of the story, I did find it a little slow paced. The journey to seek the secret seemed to be dragged out, with it taking longer to get to the required place than it did to work through the clues. However, when the clues did finally arrive, they were at least not easy to predict, so the ending came as a surprise to me. But after so long reaching the point where the ending of the book could come about, the actual ending itself was a little quick and a touch disappointing, although the basic idea was deliciously dark.
What does help keep the story moving along is the quality of the writing. Along with the great ideas, the book is aimed at a slightly younger audience, so it's a simply written tale. Whilst the pacing itself may be slow, the language flows very well and this helps keep the pages turning, even when the story itself isn't as exciting as it could be.
As a horror fan, I particularly enjoyed the darker nature of the book, although the pacing wasn't always conducive to an easy read. It may be that younger readers, who this story is aimed at, may become a little bored, although more confident or teenage readers will be more inclined to battle through it. Those that do, especially those with a liking for darker tales, will be rewarded with an enjoyable story which is well worth working through, although at a best price of £3.59 from the Amazon Marketplace, it's one better borrowed than purchased, just in case it doesn't suit.
This is a slightly amended version of a review previously published under my name at www.thebookbag.co.uk.