by Gary Blackwood
(April 10th, 2014, Dial)
Because of his bent back, 12-year-old chess virtuoso Rufus lives a secluded but sheltered life in 19th century Philadelphia. When his imprudent father, the Reverend Godspeed, is ousted from the church and put into debtor’s prison because of his “heretical” book Development of Species, Rufus is sent to the House of Refuge, an orphanage where children are semi-starved and tormented. Things begin to look up when Rufus is hired by Johann Maelzel, an unscrupulous entertainer who specializes in automata and dioramas. But as Rufus begins his work operating the world-famous chess-playing automaton the Turk, he starts to uncover terrifying secrets about the Turk’s other operators, and their mysterious disappearances…
Curiosity’s main draw is its exceptionally empathetic hero Rufus. His good-heartedness makes him extremely easy to root for, but his development as a character is what makes him truly unique. He goes from being a gentle but spoiled boy living a privileged life to a tough, intelligent one whose perseverance helps him transcend his terrible circumstances. Jacque, the French carpenter who suffers from PTSD, is also an interesting character. His defense of Rufus on a couple of occasions and his sporadic remembrances of his life make him especially three-dimensional. Other characters like the unprincipled Maelzel and the weak though kind Mulhouse are also well-realized.
The writing here, which reads like a less humorous and sophisticated version of Dickens, is well-done and compelling. Its lack of condescension and realism are also big pulls.
The book’s main theme, the concept of fighting to better your situation versus “taking things with good grace”, is rendered subtly and poignantly. The well-researched setting is another attraction, and adds interest to this simple tale.
There’s a real lack of action during the first half of the novel that’s only partially allayed during the second half, and the dark tone and complex writing are also unlikely to appeal to children. There is one significant incident in which Rufus is plainly used as a pawn of plot. The bittersweet ending, moreover, is unsatisfying, especially considering how much Rufus had suffered throughout the novel.
Verdict: Though likely to bore or depress its target demographic, Curiosity is a thoughtful, relatively interesting look at a Philadelphia boy who rises above his abysmal circumstances and the 19th century automaton that he operates.
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