MG Book Review: The Clockwork Crow by Catherine Fisher

For over a decade, Catherine Fisher, author of the ​​New York Times-​bestselling INCARCERON duology, has been a firm fixture of young adult fantasy. Now, Fisher is making her foray into the world of middle grade magic with a new trilogy set within the cozy Welsh countryside. The series’ first book, ​​THE CLOCKWORK CROW, features a headstrong, willful protagonist named Seren Rhys.

The story opens with Seren standing on a deserted train platform in the middle of a blistering winter storm. Seren is an orphan, and she’s just received the sort of letter all children like her dream of getting—a letter promising a brighter future. It turns out she has a godfather, Captain Jones, who lives in Wales with his Lady wife and young son, Tomos, in a house so fancy it has its own name: Plas-y-Fran. So even though the wind is howling, Seren feels warmed with the idea of a family to call her own and a boy her own age who will be like a brother to her.

But while she’s waiting for the train to take her to her new life, a mysterious man with a grubby old newspaper parcel arrives and begins behaving quite oddly indeed. He seems to think there’s someone after him—someone who can’t be heard or seen, and who he can only refer to as “Them.” ​​Seren thinks that only a mad person would be out in a storm like this, but, against her better judgement, she asks the man if she can be of any assistance to him anyway. The man, who looks very fearful indeed, asks Seren to hold onto the grubby parcel while he goes to take a look around, to see if “They” have caught up with them. Before he goes, he exacts a promise from Seren: that she won’t leave the parcel here where “They” can get it in the event he does not return. Of course the train arrives moments after the man leaves, and though Seren waits until the last possible moment, the man does not return. Seren seriously considers leaving the parcel at the station, but, remembering her promise, she takes it with her. She has to admit, she is a little curious about it—though not nearly so curious as she is to meet her new family, especially her new brother, Tomos.

When she arrives at Plas-y-Fran, however, things are not at all as she expected. Captain Jones is nowhere to be seen, and neither is his family. Instead, she is driven from the station by an abrupt coachman named Denzil and delivered to Plas-y-Fran, where she’s received by a taciturn housekeeper names Mrs. Villiers. The house, while large, holds only the ghost of loveliness—everything in it seems run down and abandoned. When Seren asks about the family, she’s told they are “away” and that she will be here on her own, without even other children to play with. 

Feeling quire dispirited, Seren occupies herself by exploring her new home. The dowdy Mrs. Villiers has given her just two rules: no wandering past the iron gate marking the end of their estate, and she must never, under any circumstances, go up to the attic. But when she sees the housekeeper climb the stairs to the attic with a meal tray one day, Seren becomes convinced that the staff is hiding a secret. So the following day, she sneaks up the stairs herself to find out what it is. The only thing she finds—besides a lot of dusty furniture draped in old cloth—is a locked door. Peering into the keyhole, Seren thinks the room looks like a nursery, and realizes this must be Tomos’ room. But no one answers when she knocks.

Forced to give up on the mystery, Seren looks for other ways to occupy her time at Pas-y-Fran and eventually remembers the newspaper parcel from the strange old man at the train station. She unwraps the bundle to find a heap of feathers, gears, and cogs. It takes her forever, but soon she finds herself staring at a slightly worse-for-wear automaton in the form of a big black crow. After filching a bit of oil from the housekeeper’s store cupboard, Seren brings the bird to life and is both stunned and delighted to find out that it is more than a mere toy—not only can he walk and fly, he can also speak! And according to him, he’s not a bird at all, but a prince suffering under the weight of a terrible curse . . . and he needs her help to keep him hidden from his enemies, the Fair Folk.

Seren agrees to help him, but only if he’ll help her get into the locked room. When they get there, though, Seren is disappointed to find that Tomos is not there, and that everything is just as dusty inside the nursery as outside . . . all except for a collection of snow globes. One in particular seems to have an unearthly sort of shine to it. It features the most beautiful winter palace she’s ever seen, and when Seren shakes it, it makes her feel strange—as if, like the Clockwork Crow, it’s more than just a toy. 

Seren and the crow leave the nursery with more questions than answers, but when they’re caught sneaking out by Denzil and the horrible Mrs. Villiers, she learns the terrible truth about what happened to the family.​ ​Seren’s heart breaks for the​m, and, with the help of the Clockwork Crow, she resolves to help them, even if it means risking everything she has—including her new home at Plas-y-Fran—to do it.

​​THE CLOCKWORK CROW is a charming tale set within the wintery Welsh countryside, featuring magic, mystery, and mischievous fairy doings. Seren is an active capable young heroine with a smart mouth and an even smarter mind that she uses to unravel the layers of mystery within Plas-y-Fran. Her companion, the Clockwork Crow, adds just that bit of magic-turned-mayhem that young readers will delight in as they root for these companions to figure out the puzzle at the heart of Plas-y-Fran. By turns surprising and uplifting, this book will capture the hearts and imaginations of younger middle grade readers and leave them looking forward to Fisher’s next installments in the trilogy, THE VELVET FOX and THE MIDNIGHT SWAN.

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