By: Robert Dinsdale
Release Date: February 8, 2018
Rating: 5/5 beakers
The entrance was a gothic archway, around which heart-shaped leaves of the most fearsome red had been trained. On either side stood windows of frosted glass, obscuring the myriad colours within. The edifice of the building was speckled in lights, like snowflakes rendered in fire. Cathy had never seen electricity used like this, had not imagined it could be so giddy or enchanting. Smells were calling out to her too, gingerbread and cinnamon that plucked her out of this November night and cast her down in a Christmas ten years ago.
I first grew interested in reading The Toymakers when I was looking for books like The Night Circus. The latter is magical, romantic, and an all-around experience while also having a fair amount of suspense and tension to make the ending perfect, and I was looking for something similar. The Toymakers kept popping up during my search, but it wasn’t until I actually saw the cover that I was totally sold. I’m a sucker for a good cover, and this one promised all the magical drama that I was looking for; thank goodness it didn’t disappoint.
The very first line of The Toymakers sets the tone: The Emporium opens with the first frost of winter. Immediately, we’re given the promise of a place of magic and discovery, of long-awaited surprises and toys that surpass our wildest imaginings. Papa Jack’s Emporium is immediately established as a place of wonder and joy where children are free to play and adults can relive their childhood daydreams. However, something is strange in the Emporium this year, something unprecedented, something that speaks of changes behind the scenes that could drastically change the Emporium’s future…
The first chapter then jumps back in time to feature our female lead, Cathy Wray. Cathy has found herself pregnant, and rather than giving up her baby, she flees to the Emporium, a place that promises safety and a job at least for a while. But what Cathy finds is a place more wonderful than she could’ve imagined and two brothers who love each other but take ‘sibling rivalry’ to another level. Through Cathy’s eyes, we’re introduced to the various corners and tricks of the Emporium, from its hidden rooms and living patchwork dogs to Papa Jack himself, all while she keeps her growing secret from her coworkers and the brothers. But secrets don’t tend to stay secret for very long in the Emporium, and soon Cathy finds herself entangled in the tense relationship between Emil and Kaspar.
Yes, I know that sounds like there’s a love triangle in this book, and for a little while, it appears as if there might actually be one. However, Cathy only has eyes for one brother, and the depth of their relationship grows along with Cathy’s belly into a true romance that leads to marriage years later once they’re more grown up. Without spoiling anything, I will say that I was pleased with Cathy’s choice as that pairing felt more real, with the two of them showing real care and support for one another. It’s a real treat to see them fall for one another and learn to understand both the physical and mental needs of their unique situation.
However, the happiness of the Emporium can’t last forever, and the arrival of WWI continues to sour relationships within the Emporium. Kaspar finds himself off at war, and although he survives, the man who returns is far from the whimsical, creative man who had left. The focus on the costs of war both at the front and at home are thoroughly explored, and it’s painful to see how being faced with death everyday changes the relationship between Kaspar and his family. It’s more painful to see Kaspar upon his return as he suffers from PTSD. Dinsdale doesn’t shy away from the darkness and fear and anguish of Kaspar’s experience, and it’s heartbreaking to see those emotions enter a place that has only ever truly known joy and wonder. Dinsdale weaves this pain into Papa Jack’s own story as well, but we know the outcome of his imprisonment and how he came to terms with his suffering, whereas we don’t know how Kaspar’s story will end, and that makes his struggle so much more powerful.
The story takes a strange but interesting turn after Kaspar’s return, and I think that’s the point at which the true nature of many of the characters is revealed. Dinsdale has written an incredibly strong cast of characters: Cathy, who has made a place for herself in the Emporium and found love and a family under its roof; Martha, Cathy’s daughter, who has only ever known the Emporium and whose cleverness and creativity abound; Kaspar, who still maintains a glimmer of his childlike spark underneath his pain; and Emil, who is jealous of his brother’s service and can’t understand Kaspar’s sudden desire to get rid of all the toy soldiers. Each of the characters has their own motives and their own desires, and it’s clear that not everyone can get what they want. But the way that they go about trying to attain their goals clearly shows how people can change and how jealousy and a lack of self-confidence can poison a relationship.
There’s a pall of sadness over the final portion of the story, but there’s still a spark of wonder as Cathy always takes a bit of the Emporium with her wherever she goes, and not just in the sense that Cathy herself has essentially become a bit of the Emporium. Her determination and her love for children and their joy keeps her moving forward despite years of sadness and yet another world war. However, the Emporium has been keeping one final secret, and its reveal leaves us with a bittersweet but ultimately happy ending. It’s also one that made me incredibly angry with a particular character, and although I wish he would get his comeuppance, revenge isn’t the point of the story; rather, Dinsdale weaves a lesson of forgiveness and unity into the story, and that’s the lesson we’re left with, as well as one of love and happiness.
The Toymakers is full of magic and darkness, of wonder and pain, of joy and loss. Like The Night Circus, it’s a masterpiece of magical realism full of memorable characters and a setting unlike any other. It’s a beautiful Christmas read, evoking the winter seasons of the Victorian age up through WWII, and it reads just like a fairytale, with moments of happiness preceding moments of darkness and bloodshed before a perfect ending. You’ll find twists and turns and aisles full of incredible imagination at Papa Jack’s Emporium, so visit as soon as you can and uncover its secrets for yourself!
- “If you’re going to make a toy, you have to hold one truth as inviolable above all others: that, once upon a time, all of us, no matter what we’ve grown up to do or who we’ve grown up to be, were little boys and girls, happy with nothing more than bouncing a ball against a wall.”
- “Don’t be sad, Papa.” “There are times when it is good and right to feel sad,” Papa Jack whispered.
- “…But can a toy come to life? My dear,” he breathed, “it isn’t foolish at all. All of the magic, all of the l love we pour into them. I should think the only foolish thing is to wonder why it doesn’t happen all of the time.”