This happens to a genre that is as delicious to me as strawberries with cream. Whether it’s the Narnia books, Alice in Wonderland, or the many contemporary examples of the genre, there is something about strangers in a strange land that gets the creative and imaginative juices flowing.
Luckily, The Key to Rondo happens to be an especially fine example of this type of fantasy. It has Rules That Must Not Be Broken (all pertaining to an old painted music box, which happens also to be the alternate world), as well as logical repercussions when these rules are broken. Strange and ominous occurrences in early chapters receive surprising explanations by the end of the book. Characters and plot work together in the most satisfying way.
Leo and Mimi are the two children who are plunged into this world when Mimi (a rather disagreeable child a la Eustace Scrubb from The Voyage of the Dawn Treader or – to use a non-fantasy example – Mary Lennox from The Secret Garden) insists on breaking the first rule of the music box that Leo (a risk-averse, obedient child) has just inherited from his aunt. Instead of stopping at three turns, Mimi winds it four times, which allows a nasty witch from the music box world to enter their own world. This witch steals Mimi’s beloved dog, forcing Mimi (and thus a reluctant Leo) to enter the music box world to get him back.
Neither Mimi nor Leo become different people – flaws and quirks thankfully remain in place – but their quest brings them greater understanding and appreciation of each other and allows them to grow, as every good quest must. They meet a variety of human, animal, and fantastical creatures, many of whom are based on familiar fairy tale characters (a bit like Rapunzel’s Revenge by Shannon Hale, Into the Woods by Lyn Gardner, and many other similar fantasies). However, these characters are complex and interesting folks in their own right and never once come across as undeveloped or stock.
Danger, treachery, misunderstanding, and plenty of magic and humor combine to make this a thrilling and engrossing fantasy for grades 4 – 8.