Fire consumes Cassandra Strachan Sagredo, the witch. It's not a pyre that tortures her. It's fire from within forged by the blood-red fire opal she wears in a filigree cage around her neck.
The opal, her source of power from childhood, is now exacting its price. It will deliver an agonizing death unless she can trick someone into stealing it from her.
That someone, she hopes, might be puppeteer Gaspare Grisini, her former pupil and betrayer. For nearly 40 years Cassandra has wreaked her vengeance on Grisini from afar but now she calls him near.
Grisini, in London, has taken two orphans -- Lily Rose Fawr and Parsefall Hooke -- as assistants. He has also trained Parsefall to be a thief, picking the pockets of the audience.
Cassandra compels all three to come to her castle-like home, Strachan's Ghyll. She hopes one of them will be her deliverer.
Unknown to Cassandra, a third child travels with Lily Rose and Parsefall. Clara Wintermute, kidnapped by Grisini, becomes entangled in this dangerous journey.
Grisini is a horror. He uses children mercilessly.
Clara is not the first child he imprisoned in a puppet's body. One child went mad from the experience.
And Parsefall's nightmares hint at an old and cruel punishment that keeps him from disobeying Grisini's commands.
Away from the city, in Strachan's Ghyll, the children are surrounded by open countryside and a life of luxury they never imagined. Perhaps there they can find a way to escape Grisini's control.
Laura Amy Schlitz's "Splendors and Glooms" (Candlewick Press, $17.99, ages 9 to 13) might be too dark for some readers. It reveals a grim Victorian London, with foul-smelling streets, crushing poverty, and early death or orphanhood for children. Such details could be off-putting, but Ms. Schlitz's artistry keeps us reading.
Against this realistic historical background Ms. Schlitz has concocted a satisfying witch's brew of compelling characters, magic spells and mystery. As in her earlier works, the novel conjures up the past and offers a rich, rewarding experience to those willing to stretch their minds and risk their emotions.
Eleven-year-old Sullivan Mintzin in Cary Fagan's "The Boy in the Box" (Clarion Books, $16.99, ages 9 to 12) also becomes the pawn of a traveling showman.
A lonely boy, Sullivan spends his at-home hours tending to needs of residents of the Stardust Home for Old People. That's the name of his parents' unprofitable facility that doubles as the family residence.
At school, Sullivan finds only one boy, Norval Simack, to befriend. Sullivan is embarrassed to invite Norval to his home, so the friendship never grows beyond the lunch table. The only other student who pays attention to Sullivan, Samuel Patinsky, bullies him.
Sullivan's best friend is 81-year-old Manny Morganstern, a resident of the Stardust Home. Manny encourages Sullivan to take up juggling to build his confidence.
Unfortunately, Sullivan's newly acquired juggling skills lead him into danger. Master Melville's Medicine Showrolls into town for a limited engagement.
Sullivan wants to join the children onstage as a juggler and earn money for his cash-strapped parents. But instead of being hired, Sullivan finds himself a prisoner of the Melvilles, forced to adopt a new identity and name.
Sullivan's attempts at escape fail. As he travels with the medicine show Sullivan, now called Dexter, and the other children form a family of sorts. He gains confidence as his juggling skills grow and audiences cheer.
Less grim than Ms. Schlitz's book, "The Boy in the Box," the first in a trilogy, echoes the theme of a child trapped and manipulated by adults. Unlike Cassandra and Grisini, the Melvilles use deceit, rather than magic, to keep the child captive.
While it lacks the depth and elegance of Ms. Schlitz's work, Mr. Fagan's brisk plotting and engaging characters ensure that readers will eagerly await the next installment in Sullivan/Dexter's adventures.
Deceivers exist beyond the realm of fantasy. In "The Giant and How He Humbugged America" (Scholastic Press, $19.99, ages 10 to 14) award-winning author Jim Murphy recounts a hoax played out in post Civil War America.
On a farm in New York State, near the town of Cardiff, men unearth a giant form while digging a well. First locals, then more learned observers, project onto the 10-foot-4-inch figure, dubbed the Cardiff Giant, myriad identities.
Is it member of an ancient Onondaga tribe of giants? Proof of biblical giants like Goliath? An ancient statue or a petrified human?
The owner of the farm loses no time cashing in on the discovery. He erects a tent and charges admission.
Neighboring businessmen make profits selling food and drink to travelers who flock to the farm. Carriage and hotel trade flourishes.
The Cardiff Giant travels the state. In New York City, P.T. Barnum wants to buy him, but is rebuffed.
In retaliation Barnum displays his own giant, one inch taller than the Cardiff one, and undercuts his rivals by charging only 30 cents to their dollar admission. The rivalry increases public interest.
Even when facts emerge to prove the Cardiff giant was recently sculpted people still pay to see it. They want to decide for themselves what it is.
George Hull, the man who commissioned the sculpture, considered his hoax nothing more than a fine joke. He co-wrote a book on the Cardiff Giant, and, huckster to the end, chiseled one writer out of his share of profits.
Like his other fine explorations of history, Murphy's book is loaded with facts and illustrated with period documents and photographs. The extensive notes and bibliography offer further reading for those who want to learn more about the Cardiff Giant, other hoaxes, and the hucksters who profited from them.
Patte Kelley is head of the children's department at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh's main branch, Oakland.