"The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. It is the same every year."
A magnificent story of magic, engineering, a family saga and betrayal has the reader hooked from page one, on the life-transforming story of the brothers Emil and Kaspar, as well as Cathy Wray, a young runaway.
Papa Jack's Emporium is a place of magic, where dreams come true and where Emily and Kaspar grow up with their father as the most incredible toy maker in London. But the Emporium only opens for the Christmas season - as soon as the first frost settles and the first snowdrop unfolds her petals. This family saga starts in the early 20th century with 15-year old and pregnant Cathy Wray fleeing to London, so her parents cannot make her give it up for adoption. Stumbling into the Emporium, she becomes a sales girl and quickly falls for handsome and charismatic Kaspar. Emil, the other brother, is a quirky, weird boy, always shoved into the shadows by his superior brother.
But the shadows unfolding outside the Emporium as war knocks on the door also leave their imprint on the family, and when Kaspar is recruited, Cathy has to say goodbye to her sweetheart and step-in father of her child for a long time. Always trying to keep the Emporium afloat, a family crisis ensues when deeply traumatised Kaspar returns and everything falls into mayhem.
Genre-wise I would describe this book as a children's book for adults. From its playful cover and way it is written, it is suggestive of a children's book, but topics like war, mental instability and teenage pregnancy may be a little intense for young readers.
This book was a particular gem in my latest reading history, perfectly fusing magic and engineering, a little reminiscent of books like Northern Lights or Cogheart. The magically infused toys that literally come to life in this story are not perceived as too-out-of-the-ordinary, but it only adds to the magical atmosphere of the plot.
One particular wonderful aspect of the book was its perspective. Author Robert Dinsdalde foregoes all traditional "rules" of narrator and happily mixes all perspectives, sometimes providing an omniscient view, sometimes even out of the toys' views. Dinsdale does a great job of guiding the gaze of the reader, addressing us directly before pulling out again and directing it in a different way.
Instead of a usual story arch where something triggers the action before there is a resolution and happy end, this book simply follows the lives of this extraordinary family over a few decades, stricken with war, personal grief and growing up, all amidst the magic of the Emporium filled with toy soldiers, rocking horses and almost real-life stuffed dogs. Parts of their story (and I won't review which for spoiler reasons), were almost impossible to bear, as tragedy does not only strike once or twice, but in regular periods. Especially the incredible twist at the end comes as a huge surprise and is almost too shocking to take, but definitely a fantastic turn towards the end.
Fans who look back to their childhood nostalgically and love a pinch of magic will appreciate the wonderful story-telling and enchanting setup guiding through this story line - and you will never look at toy soldiers the same way again.
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