The Cabinet of Earths

Book review by
Mary Eisenhart, Common Sense Media
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American kids find magical, creepy adventure in Paris.

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

Educational Value

Readers will pick up a bit of French as Maya does and experience the sights of Paris along with her (including the attraction her brother, James, enthusiastically dubs the "Evil Tower"). They'll also learn something about the French Revolution, and one of its particularly tragic victims, the scientist Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier, whose theory of the conservation of matter figures in the plot.

Positive Messages

Maya discovers she has access to her ancestors' magical powers, but also learns the great good and great harm these powers can cause, not all of which are immediately obvious. She attains a good deal of wisdom, guided strongly by her love for her family.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Maya is a positive and believable figure; she is often angry, bewildered, and confused in her new and strange circumstances, but is smart, resourceful, and guided by good values. Her mother is both wise and appealing. Her classmate Valko, who is Bulgarian by birth but as the child of diplomats has been uprooted all his life, understands her feelings and offers her friendship and support.


The villains in The Cabinet of Earths are definitely up to no good. While there is no gore, there is much fiendish machinery, sometimes explicitly used on small children to their great detriment, and a frequent sense of creepiness. There is also past history of one brother betraying another to the Nazis, a scientist betraying another to the French Revolution, and other mortal treachery.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

A key element of the plot involves a mysterious substance called anbar, which causes euphoria in its users and makes them act like drug addicts to obtain more of it.

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that this debut from Anne Nesbet, UC Berkeley professor of Russian literature and the history of film (a follow-up is due in 2013), is a great adventure with an imaginative premise, engaging characters, Parisian local color, and an intelligent, nuanced look at family relationships and moral issues. But a few scenes -- particularly one involving convoluted antique machinery that extracts the life force from a child -- are creepy enough to induce nightmares in more sensitive young readers. Also, a good deal of historical, philosophical, and magical information relevant to the plot can become overwhelming. 

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What's the story?

Thirteen-year-old Maya and her little brother, James, are reluctantly uprooted and moved to Paris -- where their mother, who's just beaten cancer, has always wanted to live, and their father has just found a dream job. Once there, Maya begins to suspect there's something more sinister going on than the homesickness and culture clash she feels, as she runs across spooky buildings, mysterious strangers, long-lost relatives, and unexplained events. With the help of her classmate Valko, she soon plunges into a life-changing adventure, and discovers a troubled family history dating back to the French Revolution.

Is it any good?

THE CABINET OF EARTHS gets top marks for skillfully navigating complex emotional territory. It explores the feelings of a girl who has been dealing with her beloved mother's cancer for several years, recognizes that she has no choice but to be a "good sport" and move to Paris because that's what her mom, now healthy, wants, and is still utterly miserable because she misses her dog so much. It also scores for an ingenious, thought-provoking premise and a plot with quite a few surprises. Its weakness lies in the fact that it has to convey a significant amount of newly invented cosmology, as well as historical and scientific information, for the plot to make sense. It all comes together by the end, but it may be confusing for some readers along the way.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how even in the world of magic, everything has a cost, although the person who gets the benefit may not be the one who pays the price. Just because you can do something or have something, should you? 

  • Families can also talk about what it feels like to be the kid when one of the parents is going through cancer treatments, as Maya was for several years.

  • If you had the chance to go live in Paris, all expenses paid, for a year, would you go, or would you rather stay at home with your friends? Why?

Book details

Our editors recommend

For kids who love fantasy

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