02 March 2007

It All Started on Epiphany

Oliver Parker is a 12-year-old American boy who has spent three quarters of his life in Paris; his parents live there because his father is a journalist. He often feels lonely amongst his French classmates and a little out of place. There's also something bothering his parents, especially his father, who is covering the story of an old classmate, an electronics whiz who is coming to Paris to install some great new invention on the Eiffel Tower.

On the evening of Epiphany, his mother purchases the usual King's Cake that is eaten on that day, and makes certain, as she always does, that Oliver receives the little key token baked into the pastry. This means Oliver gets to wear the little gold paper crown that always comes with a galette des rois. Because he's had "one of those days" at school he leaves the crown on all night, and later in the evening after he finishes his homework and is practicing shadow figures on the wall, he looks into the kitchen window—and sees a boy wearing a doublet staring back at him.

So begins The King in the Window by Adam Gopnik, an old-fashioned, intense fantasy story that has Oliver embroiled with the ongoing war between the Window Wraiths (they reflect your image in windows and generally help you to look better) and the dark spirits of the mirrors, which steal your soul. Oliver has been recruited because the Window Wraiths, having seen him in the crown, think he is the King of the Window, who will deliver the world from the spirits of the mirrors, who are planning to break through to the real world and capture the soul of every human on earth. Next thing he knows, Oliver, a totally unremarkable young man, has stolen a glass sword from the Louvre, discovered allies in often-exasperated 13-year-old Neige, daughter of the caretaker of the Parkers' residence, and the exceedingly wealthy Mrs. Pearson, not to mention the clochards, the street dwellers of Paris, and his buddy from the United States, Charlie.

This is a complex fantasy, more suited to young adults than children, and adults who enjoy a flight of fancy. Oliver is no sterling genius and readers will sympathize with him as he tries to discover how he will defeat the mirror denizens. In addition, Gopnik paints the gloom and the glory of a Paris winter in words like watercolors until the city becomes a character as much as Oliver, Neige, and the rest.

Enchanting and enthralling and even a little melancholy.

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