For those of us who live in East Tennessee, Biltmore House in North Carolina is a nearby tourist destination. If you visit, you can see the luxuries available for the family and their guests- including a bowling alley and indoor pool, and even some of the servant's quarters and areas like the kitchen. But the areas Serafina and her father are most familiar with down in the basement and mechanical rooms, are places not many tourists have seen. Serafina's father helped to build Biltmore and then stayed to tend the machines that keep it running, like the dynamo that provides electricity for the lights and modern conveniences. Unlike the other workers with families, he has chosen to live down in the boiler room (without permission) and he has his daughter hidden away down there with him. He constantly warns her that she must stay hidden, not draw attention to herself, and stay out of the forest around the estate.
In the first book, Serafina and her friend Braeden (George Vanderbilt's nephew), defeat the villain in the black cloak. This new book takes up the story 3 weeks after those events. Although she no longer has to stay hidden, Sera still tends to nap during the day and stay up at night. She has also been spending time out in the forest with her mother. After one of these visits she is attacked by wolfhounds on her way back to the mansion. The hounds are controlled by a dark figure that arrives in a strange carriage that continues on to the mansions without him. By the time Serafina makes it back to Biltmore, torn and bruised from her fight with the wolfhounds, the horses have been stabled and no one can tell her who arrived in the carriage.
Inexplicable things continue to happen. Animals flee the area in a mass exodus, everything from beavers to moths. The animals that remain begin to act strangely, attacking those they know as if they were dangerous strangers. A detective arrives and questions everyone about the disappearance of Mr. Thorne (a character from the first book). But Serafina is convinced that he is not who he claims to be and has a different purpose for this presence in the house. And a serious accident threatens to end her friendship with Braeden. How can she solve what is going on without any help? As readers make their way through the story, they may begin to notice the clues that point to the villain, but there are several suspicious characters and enough odd occurrences to keep everyone guessing until the very end.
Although most of the action centers in the mansion itself, some scenes take place in the forest around the estate. Descriptions of the trees, the animals, even the rivers and streams conjure up the atmosphere perfectly. If you have ever visited the Appalachian Mountains, you will recognize the scenery right away. There are plenty of details provided about the house and its furnishings, the clothing of the staff and guests, and even examples of the range of people who were invited there. For middle grade readers (or older) who enjoy the world of Downton Abbey, this would be a similar world.
I really enjoyed how the story wove history, period detail, local legends, and fantasy elements together. Serafina is an heroine full of life and courage, even when she is frightened for herself and others. My favorite quote from the first book is, "Our character isn't defined by the battles we win or lose, but by the battles we dare to fight," and it makes an appearance in this story, too. But there is another thought from this book that I hope will stick with young readers. At one point Serafina is trying to decide if she should stay at Biltmore or go and find a different place for herself. "As she tried to envision her future, she realized there were many paths, many different ways to go, and part of growing up, part of living, was choosing which paths to follow."
If you enjoy historical fiction, mysteries, fantasy, or combinations of those themes - you should give this book a try. I read an e-book provided by the publisher through NetGalley.
Check out the book trailer, or visit the author's website.