Happy Marvelous Middle Grade Monday, you guys!
Today, we're reviewing Faces of the Dead by Suzanne Weyn. It's a book about one princess who learns the truth about the revolution sweeping through her country, and how it impacts her world view.
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Hardcover, 208 pages
Publication date: August 26th 2014 by Scholastic Press
Format read: Finished copy via publisher
Weyn weaves a tale about Marie-Therese that's entertaining as much as it is tragic, while also providing real-life details that will likely surprise readers, and encourage them to research further into her main characters.
When Marie-Thérèse Charlotte of France learns of the powerful rebellion sweeping her country, the sheltered princess is determined to see the revolution for herself. Switching places with a chambermaid, the princess sneaks out of the safety of the royal palace and into the heart of a city in strife.
Soon the princess is brushing shoulders with revolutionaries and activists. One boy in particular, Henri, befriends her and has her questioning the only life she's known. When the princess returns to the palace one night to find an angry mob storming its walls, she's forced into hiding in Paris. Henri brings her to the workshop of one Mademoiselle Grosholtz, whose wax figures seem to bring the famous back from the dead, and who looks at Marie-Thérèse as if she can see all of her secrets. There, the princess quickly discovers there's much more to the outside world - and to the mysterious woman's wax figures - than meets the eye.
I started reading Faces of the Dead, expecting a typical tale about a real-life princess and a servant who switch places during the French Revolution, and the various problems that ensue. Instead, I got a surprising, intriguing tale about a piece of French history I didn't know, including an inside look into mysticism that I wasn't aware existed during that period.
Things that worked:
From the start, Suzanne Weyn makes it clear that Maria-Therese is just like us. Despite being born into French royalty, she's also just a girl with loving family and friends, albeit from a more isolated environment.
Humanizing Maria-Therese provides readers with a different insight into just how Maria-Therese and her family could have been so unaware of the suffering of the French people, while also setting up a nice foundation for her decision to switch places with Ernestine. This is a young girl who isn't willfully clueless about the world around her, just isolated and without exposure.
While Faces of the Dead is very much Maria-Therese's story, Weyn does make it a point to give background to several key historical figures, including Maria Antoinette. Readers are privy to the other face of history in her case - the one where she was a doting mother, who only wanted happiness for her family and her people.
Readers will likely be impressed with Ernestine, as well. Even though they get to know her through Maria-Therese's eyes, there's no doubt that this is a girl who is loyal and a genuine friend. She inspires Maria-Therese to think beyond herself, something that definitely comes into play later on.
The book starts off by going through the early years of Maria-Theres's life, in fairly rapid succession. Readers are shown scenes of her life pre-Revolution, including happy family memories and the first time she switches with Ernestine. The book then skips to the present, and to the events that eventually lead to the ousting of the French royal family.
Weyn's plotting decisions are smart ones; early memories from Maria-Therese's life emphasize just how sheltered she's been, while also providing a humanizing look at her parents in the face of an angry public. Readers are more likely to understand her anger and pain at how her world is being torn apart, especially as she views the continuing chaos of the Revolution.
World-building and the details:
For a relatively short book, Weyn is very good at incorporating small, memorable details. Things like Marie-Therese noticing a person's waxwork, or her mother's clothes in the hands of the wrong people, all set the tone for the chaos of the period.
The darker issues/Historical context:
Weyn doesn't hesitate to hold back from providing readers with a look at the true horrors of the French Revolution, including providing occasionally graphic descriptions on beheadings, and detailed descriptions of the wax masks that are made after a person's death.
However, Weyn also makes it a point to show both sides of the issue. Thanks to smart dialogue and good plotting, readers are shown just why ordinary French citizens have been driven to such extreme measures, while also getting a thorough look at just why the royal family didn't understand the depth of despair or anger being felt by their people.
As a part of Maria-Therese's first-hand look into French society, Weyn incorporates a healthy dose of the occult/mysticism into the story.
Some of it is a little hard to swallow at times - especially when mystical elements go wrong - but it's so intriguing, that it does further the story and different sub plotlines along.
The relationship factor:
One of the driving forces of Faces of the Dead are the relationship between Maria-Therese and those around her. She is motivated by her continuing family relationships, while it's her friendships that get her through the darkest days of the Revolution.
Weyn thoughtfully shows how strangers can quickly become allies and friends (and more!) during chaotic times, and how they can be the answer to making it through potentially impossible situations.
While the ending has definitely come straight out of Weyn's imagination, I think it's a nice way to conclude Maria-Therese's story, and will likely give readers - especially the younger ones - a sense of peace and closure.
It's the type of ending that shows there can still be a light at the end of a turmoil-ridden period, and that happy endings can still exist as long as you know where to look for them.
Things that didn't work/Things to consider:
The writing for Faces of the Dead did feel a little young at times. Marie-Therese occasionally sounded younger than her actual age, and it made it slightly harder for me to identify with her.
This was especially true when Maria-Therese started developing an interest in the opposite sex. I totally had a "Wait, you are way too young to be thinking like that, missy!" moment while reading.
Without giving any spoilers away, I think that Weyn's inclusion of the occult in Maria-Therese's journey is something that readers will either be fascinated by, or completely hate.
I personally found the possibilities to be intriguing, but I can easily see readers being turned off by it as well. However, I think that as long as you know it's coming, it won't be too shocking of an inclusion in the story.
Both Weyn's fictional depiction of Maria-Therese and her family, and her thoughtfully-included author's note on her inspirations and source material have piqued my interest to research more about the subject, and I think that a lot of other readers will likely feel the same way.
Bottom line: Faces of the Dead will definitely appeal to younger readers who are looking to dip their toes into historical fiction for the first time, and reluctant readers who may still be at the stage where they believe all history to be "boring". This book will definitely prove them otherwise.
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