Release date: 7th February 2011
Genre: Historical fiction
Target audience: 11+
When Lukas Declercq is orphaned, his uncle summons him to Prague, a refuge for Europe’s greatest alchemists and natural philosophers, offering to take him on as an apprentice. Uncle Anselmus is court physician to Rudolph II, the reclusive and unstable Emperor. He is also curator of Rudolph's bizarre Cabinet of Curiosities, a series of vast rooms stuffed with wonders and scientific marvels, which fascinate Lukas. There is a plot brewing against the Emperor, but sinister forces have plans for Lukas too, and before he can thwart the plot against the Emperor, Lukas must gamble on loyalty in order to save his own life.
The Cabinet of Curiosities tells an intriguing and extraordinary story about an ordinary orphaned apprentice to a court physician who suddenly becomes involved in an intricate plot to supplant the Emperor of Prague.
I can easily begin my review by saying that this little novel is almost a must-read for all lovers of historical fiction. The book features a great new setting - 16th century Prague - that was researched and described in vivid and appealing detail by Dowswell. Under the reign of Rudolph II, Prague was the perfect place for those who wanted to test the boundaries of human knowledge and nature, namely alchemists and natural philosophers, as there was no Inquisition to limit and threaten them. The natural sciences were practiced freely and this was encouraged by the Emperor. At the heart of this historical setting is the so-called Cabinet of Curiosities, the Emperor's vast private collection of beautiful, yet bizarre or extremely rare objects, such as a nail from Noah's Ark or the feathers of a phoenix. In fact, the story begins and ends with the Cabinet of Curiosities.
The first half of the novel is slow-paced, in the sense that attentions paid to developing the setting and the characters. However, despite the slow-paced nature of the first half of the narrative, the story was interesting to follow, precisely because of the many new interesting things the reader can learn about the development of medicine, alchemy and so on. The first half of the novel is very important because it defines the rest of the story. It is important to know the setting, in order to understand the intricate and intriguing plot hatched by the Spanish Inquisition, with which they wish to destroy the Emperor and turn Prague into a God-fearing place where alchemy is as in and the sinners burned. I enjoyed the plot twist and the way it unfurled. It seemed very realistic, especially considering the fact that several attempt son Rudolf's life were actually made during his reign.
The characters are well-outlined and fit into the frame of the story. Especially Lucas's journey is interesting to follow, as he really matures over the course of the novel and undergoes some significant changes. I am not familiar with Prague's history at all, I'm afraid, but I think the author did a very good job at creating the Emperor's character. He seemed very real and believable to me. Rudolph is the sort of character one cannot relate to, yet you still care and want to know what will happen to him, and I wondered about him on several occasions.
At times, things become quite intense and hard in the novel, so there is definitely some suspense to keep you turning the pages.
All in all, this is a delightful read about a different time period, as it is not every day that one can read a historical novel set in Prague. Lovers of history will be pleased, as will those who like some suspense and twisted plots in their stories.
Becky says: Thank you for your review Irena. A good point about the opportunity to read a book set in Prague. That’s definitely somewhere I’d like to visit. It sounds like after a slow book the plot really took off. Great review.
Thanks to Bloomsbury Books for sending the book for review.