Tapping into a rich history of mystery and adventure stories, Katherine Woodfine’s debut novel – The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow – is a fast paced, exciting children’s book with plenty to capture the imagination of both younger and older readers. Set in Edwardian London, the story takes place in and around Sinclair’s department store, a sort of cross between Selfridges and Willy Wonka’s factory, full of wonders and intrigue, cubby holes and grand staircases, and as exotic to its customers as to the book’s readers. Into this steps Sophie Taylor, 14 and recently orphaned, trying to adjust to a new world and determined to stand on her own two feet.
Right from the off the story rattles along at a fast pace, introducing the reader to Sophie and her colleague as she makes friends and rivals within the shop before quickly becoming caught up in a scandal that puts her and everyone she knows in danger. A cast of brave, clever young characters is soon assembled, and between them they start to unravel a mystery involving the mysterious, dangerous figure of the crime lord known only as The Baron, the theft of an intricate, clockwork music box in the shape of a sparrow, and a plot that might spell the end of Sinclair’s if they can’t stop it.
There’s nothing especially new here, but what Woodfine manages to do is pull together a set of recognisable elements into a beautifully constructed whole that’s great fun and instantly enjoyable. The characters all feel wonderfully familiar, from the brave protagonists to the shadowy antagonist, but where under other circumstances they might seem cliched and obvious, here they come across as relatable and appropriate, and while the plot has all the hallmarks of a classic mystery it maintains enough surprises to keep the reader guessing. What ties the characters and the plot together though is the setting – described as “like stepping inside a chocolate box”, the shop itself is an absolute marvel, beautifully described as an evocative, enticing world within a world, that draws the reader in and begs to be explored further.
As the first book in a potential series this is a wonderful introduction to the setting and characters, but considering it’s Woodfine’s very first novel it’s also a fantastic introduction to a new and clearly very talented young storyteller. It’s an absolute page turner – snappy, well written and structured, and impossible to put down, it’s exactly what this type of book should be. Already winning plaudits, including selection as Waterstones Children’s book of the month in June, things are looking good for both this book and Katherine Woodfine.