It was his own grandmother who fed Henri-Pierre to the Cabinet of Earths, long ago when he was only four. Don't misunderstand! It happened like this....
When Grandmother asks Henri-Pierre what is kept in the bottles, he laughingly guesses things like lemonade. But she corrects him, whispering in his ear: "
So Henri-Pierre knew what Time must look like: black grains of earth, straining like something hungry against the bottle glass.
"It wants to get out," he said once, and his grandmother moved him another pace away from the Cabinet (which he must never, never touch).
Nesbet uses the prologue to lay out the terrible nature of the Cabinet, not to mention the terrible nature of those in the family who abuse the magic's privileges. Years pass, and then Chapter One begins—with the coming of a girl from California named Maya Davidson.
Maya is utterly unimpressed about being in Paris. She's too busy missing her friends back in California. Then she meets a boy named Valko who shows her how to be a kid from somewhere else.
"Still, I'll never fit in," she said (but already more cheerful about it).
"Very possible," said Valko. "Likely, even. But you don't have to fit in to be okay. Believe me! I am the not-fitting-in world expert. I have not fit in in maybe five different countries so far. I am homelandless.... But it's no big deal, not really....."
The other people Maya meets are much stranger from upbeat Valko. There's a too-beautiful man with purple eyes who takes an odd interest in Maya and her obnoxiously charming little brother James. There's Cousin Louise, who is so nondescript she is practically invisible. And there's a very old man named Henri-Pierre, who has a marvelous, dangerous, and seductive cabinet.
At first it's just little things, like the way the salamander on the door knocker of The Society of Philosophical Chemistry seems to turn its head to look at Maya. Then she learns that she and James are somehow related to both old Henri-Pierre and the man with the purple eyes, who apparently arranged to bring them to France. But why? Maya also learns about a group of children who have gone missing over the years and tries to find out what has become of them.
The author plays with the idea of heritage and with the jarring meeting of magic and science as Maya finds out more of the secrets of the Cabinet. Along the way, Maya learns that her worries about school and not fitting in are far less important than saving herself and her brother from those who want to use the two children for their own ends. The fantasy plot includes a nice riff on the wonderful awfulness of family in our lives, along with our human tendencies towards both selfishness and selflessness.
Nesbet clearly sets things up for a second book—something to look forward to. In the meantime, you can bask in her Paris, which manages to be moody and evocative, tinged with the dark longings represented by the Cabinet of Earths.
You can check out this interview with the author at The Enchanted Inkpot, or take a look at her website here.