In 2015, Disney Hyperion struck gold with a young adult novel by Robert Beatty called Serafina and the Black Cloak. With fans clamoring for more, Beatty followed up in 2016 with Serafina and the Twisted Staff and now the trilogy completes the circle with Serafina and the Splintered Heart. This was the first book I read in the Serafina series, but by reading reviews of the first two books and with backstory peppered throughout this novel when necessary, I was able to follow along without feeling like I had missed too much.
Twisted Staff must have ended on a cliffhanger, as this one starts with Serafina waking up in a coffin and having to dig her way out through six feet of dirt. I quickly realized that Serafina's world is dark and grimm, with plenty of spooky elements to excite kids. I grew up on a healthy dose of Goosebumps and Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark, so I imagine that I would have been the target audience had these books been written in the 1990's.
Partially rooted in history, this trilogy takes place at the turn of the century and at the Vanderbilt's historic Biltmore Estate. While it's dark, it's a fantasy adventure set in America, which is rare. Set in North Carolina on the grounds of America's most famous castle, readers are instantly able to buy into this world and will hopefully be inspired to visit Biltmore someday.
Having picked up on the latest book in the series, I would recommend that readers start with the first two books as there appears to have been a lot of surprising reveals that are just casually mentioned in this one. In this adventure, Serafina finds herself living in the spirit world, able to see and hear everything happening with her friends, but unable to interact with anyone except her biggest enemy and the person who killed her, a sorceress named Rowena. What's worse, Rowena is the daughter of the wizard who invented the soul-sucking black cloak from the first book and she is planning to recreate it! In order to save her friends, Serafina will have to work with her biggest enemy if she ever hopes to be alive again.
There are plenty of elements in the Serafina series that call back to J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books, including the names Rowena and Serafina. From magical rules that sound familiar to a rare group of people that can shape shift into animals (black panthers), fans of the Potter books may feel like Serafina's stories could take place in the Wizarding World. That's not a criticism, as I'm a huge fan of Rowling's work and Beatty does a great job navigating similar territory.
Since Serafina is unable to affect her surroundings for the majority of this story, it reads a little slower than the reportedly fast-paced adventures that came before it. There are also some established relationships that I imagine are more meaningful if you've followed along on the previous adventures. But this book nicely closes the loops for all, while still leaving the door open for more adventures. Written at a reading level for ages eight to twelve, teens and adults will have no problem getting swept away by Serafina's adventures.