Beatrice Shakespeare Smith is in trouble. She’s always been notorious for the mischief she creates around the Theatre Illuminata, but after an incident involving a cannon, the destruction of several set pieces, and a spectacular fire, she finds herself stuck with two options—make herself useful, or leave the Theatre forever. Bertie isn’t like other members of the Theatre Illuminata. Everyone else has a defined purpose—They are all characters in famous plays, and without them at the Theatre, the plays cannot be enacted. Bertie was a foundling, with no written purpose, and for her, leaving the Theatre means leaving the only home she’s ever known. She decides, then, to give herself a purpose by restaging Shakespeare’s famous Hamlet, setting it in Egypt rather than Denmark. Her efforts begin roughly. Further complicating her problem is a plot surrounding The Complete Works of the Stage, otherwise known as The Book, a magical tome containing every play ever written, and the force that holds the Theatre Illuminata together. Without its influence, the characters are free to leave the Theatre, and one handsome and cunning player (and close friend) wants to escape at any cost, even if it means sending the Theatre into chaos…
Eyes Like Stars by Lisa Mantchev is a unique book. While I’ve encountered plenty of novels about the re-written or reinterpreted doings of famous literary characters, I’ve never before read one where the world was set up quite as creatively as this one. The experience of it is a bit disorienting at first—The Theatre Illuminata is not only a theatre populated by famous characters, but a theatre in which the set pieces are more wonderful than even the most imaginative set pieces in our world. Sets change themselves, as if by magic. Underwater scenes literally take place underwater. The sets themselves are also fully functional pieces of setting, rather than the mere suggestion of place that real-world sets tend to be, which means that if a character wants to take a break in a decadent Turkish bath, she only has to pull up the set piece for it, and Ta-Da! Instant luxury. Because of these elements, the Theatre Illuminata easily falls among the more interestingly established worlds in teen fantasy, and is bound to appeal particularly to theatre geeks.
The author herself had years of theatrical experience upon which to build the world in this novel, and it shows in both the details of the plot and the writing style itself. Bertie’s dealings with the various department managers—from props to scenery to wardrobe—read like fictionalized versions of actual experience, as does the energetic chaos surrounding every action requiring the cooperation of cast and crew. In clever keeping with its subject matter, the novel is also presented in both prose and script form. The switches are a little infrequent—the script format is only used early in the novel, despite there being several places later in the novel where it could have appeared—but they serve their purpose, and help to establish the theatrical setting of the story with greater clarity.
Mantchev’s personal love of theatrical literature is also apparent, as she packs a number of detailed theatrical references into the novel, mainly in the form of familiar characters. Said characters are mostly Shakespearean, which is a little bothersome, given that the Theatre is supposed to gather characters from every play ever. (A few characters, one a major character, hail from other plays, but the dominance of the Shakespearean characters makes the non-Shakespeareans feel out of place.) However, the characters are depicted well enough to compensate for this imbalance, especially Hamlet’s Ophelia and A Midsummer Night’s Dream’s fairy quartet, the latter of which, despite being minor characters in Shakespeare’s play, are amusingly written as main characters here, and through their mischief and snark are bound to become reader favorites. In further homage to the Bard, Mantchev also works in some elegant bits of wordplay. While she never goes so far as to write entire scenes in iambic pentameter, she frequently slips in little jewels of almost-poetry, which, combined with the imagination behind the setting, renders the novel an inventive read on several levels.
Unfortunately, the novel does struggle with a small, yet notable set of flaws. Its largest is that it juggles more major conflicts than it should have, and the conflict that it seems to set up as the major one—Bertie’s restaging of Hamlet—ends up falling by the wayside as trouble ensues with The Book. In fact, the Egyptian Hamlet is never actually staged in the novel, and though the play that replaces it is vastly more interesting and relevant to the narrative, the absence of Egyptian Hamlet made the novel feel incomplete. (Though I could be biased, since Hamlet is one of my favorite Shakespeare plays, and I like seeing neat interpretations of it). It also isn’t clear until the end of the story whether the Theatre Illuminata is a theatre in our world, a theatre in a fictional world, or a universe unto itself, which, though only a minor detail, was nonetheless one that I found annoyingly distracting for the first half of the book.
Still, for its flaws, the novel does have charm. It also has sequels! It’s a trilogy completed by Perchance to Dream and So Silver Bright, so readers who love this first book have more to look forward to!