Twelve-year-old Mary Hayes is ready to escape. Ever since her family died in a fire, she’s lived in an orphanage, and finally, tonight, she’s devised a way to run away. But she’s foiled by something which can only be called magic. And the next morning, a mysterious woman named Madam Z comes and adopts Mary.
Suddenly, Mary is whisked away to a warm house, where there are delicious meals and she has no obligations. It feels too good to be true, especially when Mary ventures to Iris, a nearby town filled with conjurers and magicians. For there, she meets Jacob, an illusionist’s son who can analyze nearly every ‘magic’ trick in Iris to something decidedly less interesting. For the first time in years, Mary has a friend.
But things don’t seem like they can be the happily ever after Mary hopes for. Madam Z tells her magic doesn’t exist, but there are strange things in the forest at night. One of the magicians in the village predicts Mary is about to be betrayed. And there’s a door by the staircase, a door she can’t find a way to open.
Together, Mary and Jacob begin uncovering the secrets of both Iris and Mary’s new home. But there is another, darker secret too: Who is Madam Z, and what does she want with Mary?
The Door by the Staircase is a mysterious, engaging fantasy, drawing from Russian folklore, with the feel of an original fairytale. Katherine Marsh creates a setting full of secrets, mysteries, and hidden power, which totally pulled me in. Although it seems like it could be creepy (and still may be, to younger readers), I didn’t find it so in the least; instead, it held some of that fairytale-strangeness and unpredictability, in a way which felt completely natural and part of the story. And the end held a brilliant twist which turned the entire course of the story in a way I hadn’t anticipated. Mary was an interesting, sympathetic protagonist who I grew to really like. This book made me think of several others: The Emerald Atlas, for the orphanages both the protagonists come from; for older readers, Shadow and Bone, for the undertones of Russian folklore, and Begone the Raggedy Witches, for the elements of fairytales. To readers ages eleven and up who love myth-based books written like fairytales, I would highly recommend The Door by the Staircase.