Serafina and the Black Cloak by Robert Beatty has been reviewed by Focus on the Family’s marriage and parenting magazine. It is the first book in the “Serafina” series.
Twelve-year-old Serafina and her father secretly live in the basement of the Biltmore Estate, where Pa is a handyman. Pa has always insisted Serafina remain hidden because he knows there is something different about her. She has four toes on each foot, and her malformed collarbones don’t connect properly to her other bones. These unique qualities do allow her to fit into very tight spaces and catch mice easily. Her father has dubbed her the estate’s C.R.C., or Chief Rat Catcher. She takes her job very seriously.
Late one night, as Serafina is creeping through the house on a rat hunt, she sees a little girl being chased by a man in a black cloak. The man pulls his cloak around the girl, and she disappears completely. The man sees Serafina and comes after her, too. She eludes him and hides until morning. The wealthy Vanderbilts, who own the estate, frequently have scores of guests at their home. Serafina learns the girl was one of these. Serafina tries to tell Pa what she witnessed, but he doesn’t believe her. During subsequent nights, more children disappear.
Serafina creeps upstairs with the intention of telling someone about the Man in the Black Cloak. The rooms are full of party guests. She makes eye contact with the Vanderbilts’ orphaned nephew, Braeden, who lives with them. As she’s about to be kicked out of the house by servants, Braeden lies and says she was hired by his uncle to shine his shoes. He invites her into his carriage with him and his uneasy dog, Gidean. Serafina tells Braeden about the Man in the Black Cloak and the missing children. The carriage becomes trapped between fallen trees in the forest. The Man in the Black Cloak appears and unsuccessfully attempts to capture Braeden.
The children are stuck overnight in the carriage, huddling together for warmth. The next day, Serafina hides when she hears rescuers coming. Braeden has no way of finding her without revealing her secrets, so he and his rescuers leave in the coach. Serafina wanders through the woods alone, until she comes upon an overgrown graveyard with many open graves. She finds and plays with two mountain lion cubs there. Then their mother appears, ready for a fight. Serafina narrowly escapes, but she is lost in the woods. She hears more noises, but they turn out to be Pa coming to the rescue.
Back at Biltmore, Serafina sneaks up to see Braeden. She’s not used to being around people and fears he will think she’s strange. Braeden, who has always felt more comfortable with animals than people, says he felt comfortable with Serafina right away. Then Serafina watches the houseguests interact from her hiding places.
She begins to suspect that a man named Thorne is the Man in the Black Cloak, especially after Braeden tells her about Thorne’s strange history. The man was poor and homeless after the war. He’s told people that he hit rock bottom and turned his life around. He became a factory manager, then a lawyer, and then a wealthy landowner.
Serafina thinks something isn’t adding up about the story. She wonders how a man like this can speak fluent Russian, as she heard him do with one of the guests. She also wonders how he learned to play so many instruments. She suggests to Braeden that maybe he is the Man in the Black Cloak and that he somehow absorbs the souls and abilities of his victims.
Serafina discovers she is right about Thorne and lures him into the cemetery. She finds the mountain lion cubs near their den and hopes the mother will attack Thorne. As planned, the lioness attacks Thorne and leaves him on the ground, near death. The cat then is about to attack Serafina. But when their eyes meet, Serafina and the lioness suddenly realize they have a bond and care for one another.
The Cloak calls to Serafina, telling her to put it on and have the power to know all things. She puts on the cloak, and it tells her where it came from. She learns it was conjured by a sorcerer who had only meant to use it to gain knowledge. When he realized it would enslave souls, he tried to get rid of it by throwing himself and the cloak down a well.
In his desperate, drunken days, Thorne had found it. Serafina knows she must destroy the cloak for good. Thorne wakes up and tries to keep her from harming the cloak. Braeden’s dog appears and helps her fight until she can shred the cloak on a sharp tombstone.
The missing children begin to reappear, alive, along with many other missing people who had been Thorne’s victims. A woman also appears. She has Serafina’s eyes, and Serafina realizes this must be her mother.
The woman explains she is a catamount. She once lived as a normal human woman who could also turn into a mountain lion. Her husband had the same abilities. Years earlier, the Man with the Black Cloak killed her husband and took the human part of her soul while she was pregnant. In lion form, she gave birth to Serafina in the woods. She had to leave her because she knew she couldn’t care for a human child. Serafina’s Pa found her there and raised her as his own. Since she now has two cubs to care for, she chooses to remain a mountain lion at this time.
She and Serafina vow to see one another often. Serafina and the missing children return to Biltmore, to the delight of the anxious parents. Braeden explains who she is and how she’s solved the case of the Man in the Black Cloak. The Vanderbilts invite Serafina and Pa to continue living in the basement and offer them beds, sheets and linens. Serafina has found her purpose in life, guarding Biltmore from intruders and evil spirits.
Nuns believe the malformed baby Serafina is a demon-spawn. Pa takes Serafina with him because he fears the nuns will drown her. Pa says he’s been praying to God in heaven that the Man in the Black Cloak was something in Serafina’s imagination. Serafina and others pray for positive outcomes in difficult situations. Serafina comes to think maybe God made people fit together like pieces of a puzzle.
Characters believe ghosts and demons live in the woods beyond their village. They believe black magic exists in the forest. They tell tales of humans shape-shifting into wild animals, sorcerers, witches and horrible, disfigured creatures. A ghoulish aura glows around the Man in the Black Cloak when he’s preparing to absorb a person and steal a soul. Servants at the estate say creatures of the night are evil and come straight from hell. Since Serafina likes to stalk around at night, she wonders if she is an evil creature.
Serafina’s Pa rescues her from the forest and has to fight to keep her out of harmful hands. He loves her deeply but rarely gives indications of his affection.
The Lord’s name is used in vain a few times. When Serafina’s father first finds her in the woods, she is in a pile of small, bloody, dead creatures. The Man in the Black Cloak’s skin falls off and his hands drip with blood. Serafina finds a bloody animal carcass in the woods. Its body has been gutted and its head and legs are missing. It looks as if someone has purposely left it there. The nearly dead Man in the Black Cloak lies bloody and badly clawed in the woods.
Serafina kisses Braeden on the cheek when he gives her a fancy dress.
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