Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos
by R. L. LaFevers
Theodosia Throckmorton has her hands full at the Museum of Legends and Antiquities in London.
Her father may be head curator, but it is Theo – and only Theo – who is able to see all the black magic and ancient curses that still cling to the artifacts in the museum. Sneaking behind her father’s back, Theo uses old, nearly forgotten Egyptian magic to remove the curses and protect her father and the rest of the museum employees from the ancient, sinister forces lurking in the museum’s dark hallways.
When Theo’s mother returns from her latest archaeological dig bearing the Heart of Egypt – a legendary amulet belonging to an ancient tomb – Theo learns that it comes inscribed with a curse so black and vile that it threatens to crumble the British Empire from within and start a war too terrible to imagine. Theo will have to call upon everything she’s ever learned in order to prevent the rising chaos from destroying her country – and herself.
I’m a firm believer that a good children’s book is a book that can be enjoyed by both children and adults. If I’d read Theodosia and the Serpents of Chaos when I was around ten years old I think I would have adored it, but as a twenty-seven year old it could only fall into the realms of ‘that was cute’. That doesn’t mean it’s not worth reading, though!
This book has one of the most enticing premises to a Middle Grade novel for me. Eleven year old Theodosia Throckmorton’s parents oversee London’s Museum of Legends and Antiquities, her father working as the curator and her American mother a keen archaeologist who frequently spends months at a time in Egypt so she can fill the museum with her finds.
Unfortunately for Theodosia (and fortunately for her parents) while they’re unaware of the dangerous artefacts they’re handling, Theodosia has the ability to see curses and she’s been teaching herself how to break them so no one comes to any harm, and her parents haven’t the faintest idea how much trouble she gets into along the way.
After six months in Egypt, Theodosia’s beloved mother returns home with an artefact that could make the museum famous: The Heart of Egypt. Unfortunately it’s steeped with curses, and before Theodosia can break the curse the artefact goes missing from a locked safe. When she encounters pickpockets, Germans and secret societies, Theodosia is swept into an adventure to find The Heart of Egypt and save all of Britain from an ancient Egyptian curse.
If there are any children in your life who are fans of history, particularly ancient Egypt, this book will be right up their street. I know I would have loved this book if it had been around when I was younger, and even as an adult I love stories with children front and centre who have a lot to contribute to the plot. Especially when these children are surrounded by adults who won’t listen to them because they’re children.
Having said that, there were some elements of this book I couldn’t quite believe even when taking into account that it’s a Middle Grade book involving magic and curses. For its target audience this book does a great job, but I imagine even some children, particularly any older children who pick it up, might find some elements of it hard to believe. The way the curses are described and how Theodosia breaks them is wonderful, it’s clear LaFevers has put a lot of thought into that element of the story, but there are moments when other adults ask things of Theodosia that make zero sense. Why would any adult entrust the safety of Britain to an eleven year old? However capable she might seem, it’s a tad ridiculous and it’s a hell of a lot to ask of a child, too.
I don’t go into a Middle Grade novel expecting some kind of explicit political commentary or a James Bond style mystery, but given how much thought LaFevers has clearly put into the magic in these books it would have been nice to see some of that in other areas of the story, too. It would have made the weaker elements of the story far stronger if Theodosia had decided to take action herself, rather than being assigned to a task by an adult who should be dealing with the problem himself.
As this story takes place in Edwardian London, I also would have liked to have had more of a feel of the Edwardian era in the story. Theodosia and her family always felt like characters to me, they never quite felt real, which is a shame – in fact I’ve left this story with absolutely no idea what her parents even look like. I’m all for readers being able to use their imagination, and what they look like doesn’t really matter, but it seemed odd to me that Theodosia never really describes what anything looks like unless it’s an Egyptian artefact – it meant the rest of her world felt like it was lost in a fog in contrast.
To the novel’s credit, though, it’s a charming little story and a really easy read, and there are moments where the villains are genuinely quite sinister. The highlight of this book is definitely the Egyptian curses and how they work, but there is potential there for the rest of the world building and the character work to improve throughout the rest of this series.