The Tears of the Salamander

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
The Tears of the Salamander Book Poster Image
A dark, brilliant, and breathtaking surprise.

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A lot or a little?

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

Positive Messages

A child pursues lethal vengeance on his adult uncle.


Uncle Giorgio murders several people, and tries to kill others. Alfredo briefly considers suicide.


Castration is discussed. Sailors assume that Alfredo's uncle has a physical interest in him.


Swearing indicated by punctuation marks.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that children may need an explanation of castrati singers in the past. Some parents may find Alfredo's pursuit of vengeance on his adult uncle, unquestioned by the author, somewhat troubling.

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What's the story?

Alfredo divides his time between his father's bakery, where he has a talent for controlling the oven fires, and the Cathedral, where his talent for singing brings him tremendous joy. But when a fire kills his family, his uncle Giorgio takes him away from everything he loves to live in the family's ancient home on the volcanic Mt. Etna in Sicily.

There he finds that his family has, for generations, had the task of controlling the fires of the mountain, and his uncle plans for him to inherit the job. But his uncle's plans may be deeper, and more sinister, than he is letting on, and involve danger not only for Alfredo, but also for the mute servant and her brain-damaged son who live with them.

Is it any good?

The story isn't the story here; it's a perfectly serviceable story, of course, and in the hands of a lesser writer that's all it would be. But this soaringly lyrical combination of music, fire, and magic rises off the page like an aria.

Alfredo is a most appealing hero. Though a choirboy, he possesses both the talents and the anger of his forebears, who master the most elemental of forces. He's a deeply loving, empathetic, and emotional boy whose powers of deduction are formidable. And though he tries hard to love his strange uncle, when he discovers the truth, his vengeance is both methodical and terrible. With so much fantasy these days seeming to follow the same formula, this dark and brilliant novel is a breathtaking surprise.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about Alfredo's quest for revenge. Do you think he's justified in his actions? Why or why not?

Book details

  • Author: Peter Dickinson
  • Genre: Fantasy
  • Book type: Fiction
  • Publisher: Random House
  • Publication date: September 7, 2003
  • Publisher's recommended age(s): 10 - 14
  • Number of pages: 197
  • Last updated: July 12, 2017

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