While I was working hard on the renovation, I kept reading at night as a great way to de-stress from the hard days’ work. The only problem is that I read on my Kindle at night (much easier than hauling a heavy book to bed), and I kept running out of digital books. When I saw Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty, I snapped it up.
How could I resist a story about a child living at the magnificent Biltmore Estate during its glory days when the Vanderbilts were still in residence? Add to that a mystery with supernatural overtones and it was a no-brainer for me. Evidently I’m not alone in thinking it’s a great premise because this novel for middle-grade readers became an overnight sensation and bestseller. That means you may already know about it but, if not, I definitely want to share it with you because this one will appeal to readers of all ages.
“‘Never go into the forest,’ he [her father] had told her many times, ‘There are dark forces there that no one understands, things that aren’t natural and can do ya wicked harm.'”
Serafina’s father works to repair mechanical things at the Vanderbilts’ home in the Great Smokey Mountains. He’s always had a knack for fixing things and loves his work. To say Biltmore House is a home may seem odd because it’s so huge you could disappear in it for days without anyone finding you. Serafina and her father live in a remote part of the basement, which is against house rules and could get him fired from a job he needs badly; however, no one ever goes into that part of the house so no one knows they’re there.
Seraphina has a talent for blending into the background, a talent she developed early. Being an eternally curious child, she wanders all over Biltmore House at night and knows all its secret passages and back stairs. She loves seeing the interesting guests who come to the house, borrowing books from the library to read when no one’s looking, sneaking just-baked cookies from the huge kitchen, and learning all she can about the fascinating family who built this huge mansion. And she does all of that without anyone being the wiser, which is good because she’s not supposed to be there at all.
Her insatiable curiosity and her desire to learn everything she can about Biltmore House is probably why she sees the man in the black cloak in the basemenet one night. Who could he be? Something about him gives her the shivers but he also sparks her curiosity. She knows instinctively that she needs to give him a wide berth because something about him rings alarm bells in her head. Still, she can’t resist trying to follow him to find out what he’s about, even though she suspects he’s up to no good. Unfortunately he’s too slick for her and she loses sight of him in the basement, a place where guests never normally go. And then she hears a child’s pleading cry, and that terrifies her
“As the man walked toward her, she heard another sound, too. It was a shuffling agitation like a small person – slippered feet, perhaps a child – but there was something wrong. The child’s feet were scraping on the stone, sometimes sliding…the child was crippled…no…the child was being dragged.
‘No, sir! Please! No!’ the girl whimpered, her voice trembling with despair. ‘We’re not supposed to be down here.’ The girl spoke like someone who had been raised in a well-heeled family and attended a fancy school.
‘Don’t worry. We’re going right in here…’ the man said, stopping at the door just around the corner from Serafina…She wanted to run, to flee, but she couldn’t get her legs to move.
‘There’s nothing to be frightened of, child,’ he said to the girl. ‘I’m not going to hurt you…’
The way he said these words caused the hairs on the back of Serafina’s neck to rise. Don’t go with him, she thought. Don’t go!”
The next day Serafina learns the daughter of one of the guests has disappeared, and that she isn’t the first child to disappear on the estate. Serafina knows the guest’s daughter must have been who she heard in the basement. Since Serafina also had a narrow escape from the man in the black cape, she instantly suspects him, but she realizes no one seems to even know he exists. That means she’s the only one with a hope of finding out what’s really happened, but is she brave enough to risk her life and possibly her soul to discover the truth?
As she tries to decide what to do, something very odd happens. For the first time, someone upstairs actually sees her and that someone is a Vanderbilt. Oh no! Although she’s terrified she and her father will be evicted from the grounds, and that he will lose his job, she soon learns Braedon Vanderbilt has no intention of ratting her out. The Vanderbilts’ nephew is as anxious to catch whoever or whatever is behind the disappearances as Serafina is.
Can this brave duo uncover the man in the black cloak’s true identity in time to save the rest of the children visiting Biltmore House? What price will they pay for daring to hunt the hunter?
Serafina is one of those smart-as-a-whip young girls I love to read about. She’s got a lot of pluck, as my grandmother used to say – basically she’s fearless. She’s also different in several interesting ways, including some of which she’s unaware. Her backstory shall remain a secret to avoid spoilers, so let’s just say that she’s definitely not your average late 19th century servant’s child. Braedon is also an intriguing character, and someone who is a genuinely nice guy. He and Serafina make a great sleuthing duo, even if they have no idea of the incredible danger they’re putting themselves into.
Robert Beatty has written a mystery/thriller with supernatural overtones in Serafina and the Black Cloak that will not just delight middle grade readers but their parents as well. It is scary in all the right places, looks closely at the disparity between wealth and the “system” that keeps the wealthy’s lives running so seamlessly, has an amazing setting on an estate that fascinates all who visit it, and is set in a distant enough time period to lend itself to fantastical elements. It’s enough of a roller-coaster ride to keep adults interested but not so horrific that it will give kids nightmares – just enough to give them goosebumps. It also imparts several good messages for kids very seamlessly. Bottom Line? This novel is a win-win on all counts, and I wholeheartedly recommend it. It’s easy to see how it became a bestseller. Since Disney/Hyperion published it, I have to wonder if a film is in the works. I hope so because I think it would translate very well to the big or small screen.
I’m posting the book trailer at the end of the review with a caution – I think it gives too much of the story away, so I leave it up to you whether to watch it…
Can’t wait to read it?
Seraphina and the Black Cloak was published on July 14, 2015, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below.
I’d love to get your comments on Seraphina and the Black Cloak, Robert Beatty and/or his other work, and/or this review.