Jenni Spangler has done it again. I described her 2020 debut read, The Vanishing Trick, as a ‘deliciously dark and spooky Victorian adventure that gives you all the spine-tingles’. The Incredible Talking Machine is another spooky, supernatural mystery with a five star performance by main protagonist, Tig Rabbit, that is wonderfully directed by the magical hand of Spangler.
Twelve-year-old Tig Rabbit is a stagehand at the Manchester Theatre Royale where she sells tickets, cleans and is at the beck and call of the ruthless theatre boss, Mr. Snell. Once a buzzing performance venue, the theatre’s glory days have longed past and its closure seems inevitable. Desperate for an act to draw in the crowds, Professor Faber arrives from Vienna with his incredible talking machine - a cleverly constructed mechanical head that speaks with a human voice.
Things take a dramatic turn when the head takes on a life of its own and begins making sinister prophecies. Determined not to let bad things happen, Tig tries her best to intervene but no matter what she does things keep going wrong and she only make things worse. When a chilling prophecy is revealed that puts everyone in danger, it will be up to Tig to uncover the mystery and save both those she loves and her theatre home…
Based on real events - you can read more about the inventor and his talking machine in the author’s note - Spangler has crafted an eerie and creepy story that held me in its clutches from act one right until the curtain was pulled closed after the final climatic scenes. The mystery and the unfolding action kept me on tenterhooks throughout and I was constantly left wondering, just like Tig, exactly what was going on and what was going to unfold.
Set in Victorian England, Spangler immerses the reader into the world at the time. A world of cotton mills, workhouses, dangerous working conditions, child labour, poverty, unsanitary living conditions and class divide all add authenticity to the story and create a bustling nineteenth century Manchester for the action to play out. The Theatre Royale is its own unique world with its superstitions, folklore, quirks and ghost. As Tig darts along the beams, dashes through the passageways and creeps beneath the stage, readers are taken on a wonderful adventure that goes behind the scenes and reveals the secret world of the theatre.
Such a brilliant setting is deserved of wonderful characters and Spangler has assembled the perfect cast to tell her story. Theatre owner Mr. Snell is the villain you love to hate and his sister Eliza is the perfect counterfoil to his cold, and ruthless nature. Professor Faber is the awkward and eccentric mad professor with his crazy contraption that scares and frightens as much as it does amaze. Sensible and cautious Nelson is the best friend we all need. And Tig is a heroine that is easy to root for; feisty, fearless, kind and brave with a very sharp sense of right and wrong. Her impulsive nature and act first, think later policy does not always result in the best outcomes but she is a character who wears her heart on her sleeve and readers will find her very relatable.
I was thrilled that Spangler had once agin partnered up with one of my favourite illustrators. Chris Mould’s black and white pencil illustrations bring the action to life, add to the mood and are the perfect accompaniment to this gothic narrative.
Magical, mysterious, marvellous. A thrilling tale.
Recommended for 9+.
With huge thanks to Jenni Spangler and Simon & Schuster for the advanced reader copy that I received via Netgalley.