Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye
by Tania Del Rio, illus. by Will Staehle
Twelve-year-old Warren, a cheerful, toad-faced boy, is the 13th Warren in a long line of Warrens, all historically devoted to the prosperity of the eight-story, 113-room Warren Hotel, "perched miserably on a hill in a bleak gray countryside," haunted house-style.
Sadly, Warren the 12th, Warren's father, passed away five years ago, and when his supremely lazy Uncle Rupert took over, the Victorian hotel fell to ruin. So everyone is shocked when a guest arrives in an elegant automobile, tall and thin, all in black, face wrapped in gauze bandages. The mysterious stranger doesn't speak, but communicates in cryptic cards with pictures of four-poster beds and large red Xs. Young Warren, as the "sole bellhop, handyman, exterminator, room-service valet, and all-around errand boy," must kick into action to accommodate the unusual guest. He's on his own because Uncle Rupert is, as established, lazy, and his beastly new wife, Annaconda, spends all her time creeping about as a spy or frantically destroying the hotel in search of the possibly valuable, possibly nonexistent treasure, the "All-Seeing Eye."
Warren doesn't mind hard work ("Warren the 12th always used to say that hard work built character"), but it's a lonely life, so lonely that he often talks to his late father's portrait, which hangs in the third-floor Hall of Ancestors. His only real friends are the cook and "last of the family's old employees," Chef Bunion, and his private tutor, Mr. Friggs, an elderly scholar and permanent hotel guest who lives in the library. Despite Aunt Annaconda's orders that her nephew be served only porridge, Chef Bunion sneaks the boy delectable beef goulash and chocolate pudding cookies. And Mr. Friggs is always good for a story or two. Alas, Warren's loneliness makes him vulnerable. So when Aunt Annaconda (not just witchy but an actual witch, as it turns out) brings in a 12-year-old apprentice named Petula to shadow Warren's every move, pretend to befriend him and extract possible information about the possible All-Seeing Eye, the hapless fellow falls for it, hook, line and sinker.
Warren is a good-natured, industrious boy, and it is his refreshingly stoic disposition that is the engine of this splendidly madcap story. He always makes the best of things. When Aunt Annaconda sends him into the haunted, thorn-choked hedge maze as punishment for eating Chef Bunion's goulash, he is secretly delighted because he loves it in there. When she banishes him to the "shadowy, dank, claustrophobic" boiler room for losing a 300-year-old leather diary he found in the hedge maze, he is thrilled to meet an eight-tentacled, purple-tongued monster he names "Sketchy" because it wanted to have its likeness sketched. And when Warren discovers the All-Seeing Eye may really exist and stumbles upon a riddle in that old journal he found, he knows he owes it to the 12 Warrens before him to keep it out of his abominable Aunt Annaconda's greedy clutches.
The hotel goes haywire when Aunt Annaconda recruits her two sisters, Isosceles and Scalene, to complete her coven triangle and find the All-Seeing Eye. Unfortunately, the sisters didn't know it was supposed to be a secret and it isn't long before "hunters and explorers, performers and artists, conmen and scholars and commoners and aristocrats" arrive at the Warren Hotel in droves, all with their own fanciful notion of what the All-Seeing Eye might be. And they proceed to rip up the hotel looking for their imagined prize: "Beds were not only unmade but entirely dismantled. Wardrobes were overturned, nightstands upended.... Bathtubs had been shoved into bedrooms so that guests could peer down drainpipes."
All the delicious chaos of Warren the 13th and the All-Seeing Eye--first of a planned series--is wonderfully cloaked in a Victorian sensibility and design, a bit of Edward Gorey, a bit of Tim Burton. The table of contents ("ENJOY THE RIDE, RIGHT THIS WAY") points to the chapter titles, with intriguing names such as "In Which a Mysterious Guest Arrives" and "In Which Warren Is Drowned [Almost]." Chapters open with big, bold spreads inviting the reader into the atrocities ahead, and the two-column pages burst with spot illustrations in two colors, red and black. Will Staehle's artwork is a collage of actual old engravings, superimposed with more cartoonish figures. Dialogue is highlighted in red when yelled, secret codes and puzzles abound, and there's even a letter that readers will have to hold up to a mirror to decode.
The central riddle of the book hints there will be a time when "The hotel shall no longer stand," and that dire prediction seems to be coming true, as Warren sees his beloved hotel torn to pieces. Despite all the uncertainty--Will the hotel stand or fall? Is there really an All-Seeing Eye? Is Petula truly Warren's friend? Will Rupert always be lazy? Who is that mysterious bandaged guest?--one thing is sure: readers will enjoy finding out. Author Tania del Rio, best known for her work writing and drawing the 42-issue run of Sabrina the Teenage Witch, captures Warren's indomitable spirit--and the madness that surrounds him--in a lucid, witty style that keeps the pages flying.
No amount of care was spared in this truly charming, wonderfully spun middle-grade adventure, rich with details that, when spotted, are as delightful as finding a secret passageway in an old house. --Karin Snelson