Curiosity by Gary L. Blackwood
Philadelphia, PA, 1835. Rufus, a twelve-year-old chess prodigy, is recruited by a shady showman named Maelzel to secretly operate a mechanical chess player called the Turk. The Turk wows ticket-paying audience members and players, who do not realize that Rufus, the true chess master, is hidden inside the contraption. But Rufus’s job working the automaton must be kept secret, and he fears he may never be able to escape his unscrupulous master. And what has happened to the previous operators of the Turk, who seem to disappear as soon as Maelzel no longer needs them? Creeping suspense, plenty of mystery, and cameos from Edgar Allan Poe and P. T. Barnum mark Gary Blackwood’s triumphant return to middle grade fiction. (via Goodreads)
Why was I interested in this book?
When I’m at the library, I do subject searches just to see what might come up. On this particular occasion, I searched for “mechanical Turk.” The mechanical Turk and automata in general are something I’ve been interested in since reading about Joseffy’s mechanical creations. Anyway, the search lead to my finding Curiosity, a historical fiction about the Turk. I was game…even if it was middle grade fiction.
What Didn’t Work
What didn’t work for me is the usual stuff that doesn’t work for me when I’m reading fiction aimed at young people. There is often a lack of depth to the plot and themes. The clean-slate “Who am I in this world?” questions don’t generally hold my interest.
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed Curiosity because it was very well done. There are other plot devices in this story that sometimes go awry, but Blackwood uses them with such a light touch.
Rufus is a chess prodigy. Sometimes I find the kid genius trope hard to swallow because it ends up being a child with a whole suite of specialized skills. Being really good at one thing at a young age (like chess or a musical instrument) is a lot easier for me to believe than being something like a child assassin, which would involve talent and training in many different areas. Rufus’s skills are pretty limited to chess. At all other things, he’s pretty much just a twelve year-old.
I also didn’t realize when I picked up this book that Edgar Allan Poe would have as large of a part in the narrative. If I had, it might have been the thing to make me leave it on the shelf. After reading a few books involving fictional Poes, I decided that they were not a good idea for me. Poe for me is something of a sacred cow: I’m going to get grumpy when an author’s idea of Poe doesn’t match my idea of Poe. Again, Blackwood surprised me with a really good rendering of a slightly obsessed Poe.
The history? Also solid. Sure, there is some literary license taken, but the Turk is done right and I can see Maelzel being villainous.
This was another perfect read for the Readathon. Great pacing and setting, decent mystery, believable young character.
Publishing info, my copy: hardback, Dial Books for Young Readers, 2014
Acquired: Tempe Public Library
Genre: historical fiction