cover image Count Karlstein

Count Karlstein

Philip Pullman. Alfred A. Knopf Books for Young Readers, $17 (256pp) ISBN 978-0-679-89255-7

Originally published in Britain in 1982, Pullman's light-hearted debut effort appears in the U.S. for the first time. A welcome diversion for fans impatiently awaiting the final installation of the trilogy begun with The Golden Compass, this novel--though lacking the more serious underpinnings of the author's later books--showcases the boisterous narrative style that fans will recognize as an established element of Pullman's repertoire. Set in a Swiss village in 1816, the story revolves around wicked Count Karlstein, his two wards--the English orphans Lucy and Charlotte--and the nasty bargain Karlstein has struck with Zamiel, the Demon Huntsman, a supernatural being who annually haunts the local woods on All Souls' Eve. Pullman adds further zest to the mix with the appearance of characters like the orphans' former schoolteacher, the indomitable Augusta Davenport (""I was able to console myself with the reflection that an English gentlewoman can rise above any circumstances, given intelligence and a loaded pistol""), and the actor and sometime swindler known as Doctor Cadavarezzi (aka Signor Brilliantini), a mountebank as charming as he is sly. Briskly narrated in a variety of voices, including those of Lucy (influenced by such contemporary gothic novels as The Mysteries of Udolpho) and the bumbling, hilariously self-important police sergeant Snitsch, the plot undergoes a series of twists and turns too complicated--not to mention delightfully improbable--to delineate here. In an exuberant conclusion worthy of the best of comic operas, the orphans find a true protector, the evil Count is served his just deserts and the formidable Miss Davenport is reunited with her long-lost love. Dashing, sparkling and wildly over-the-top fun. Ages 8-13. (July)