The Tears of the Salamander

The Tears of the Salamander

4.3 6
by Peter Dickinson

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Alfredo, a choir boy in 18th-century Italy, loses his family in a fire, and his mysterious Uncle Giorgio spirits him away to their ancestral home below a volcano. There he learns that Uncle Giorgio is the Master of the Mountain; he can control the volcano. He is also an alchemist, able to make gold from the tears of the fiery salamander he captured from the heart of


Alfredo, a choir boy in 18th-century Italy, loses his family in a fire, and his mysterious Uncle Giorgio spirits him away to their ancestral home below a volcano. There he learns that Uncle Giorgio is the Master of the Mountain; he can control the volcano. He is also an alchemist, able to make gold from the tears of the fiery salamander he captured from the heart of the mountain. Alfredo is his heir, the next Master; and as Alfredo learns the history of his family and its power, he begins to suspect that his uncle is actually a fearsome sorcerer.

From the Trade Paperback edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In a starred review, PW wrote, Burning questions about the twin influences of nature and nurture, the true meaning of family, and the possibility of guiding one's fate, to name a few blaze below the surface of this engrossing, almost operatic novel, set in long-ago Italy. Ages 10-up. (Feb.) Copyright 2005 Reed Business Information.
A remarkable fantasy, exquisite, and a challenge to readers of any age. After being caught up in the imagery�so much of it�I realized I know little about the place of salamanders in history and mythology. My husband knew: yes, Aristotle wrote of salamanders and their ability to withstand the greatest fire. And Dickinson with his great skill as a writer for young people has used this image to create a remarkable story that takes place on the edge of the great volcano Mt. Etna on Sicily. The story is part metaphysics, part adventure, and in that way it is similar to Phillip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Materials. Young Alfredo is the main character, a lover of choir music that he sings so well. His family perishes in a conflagration and soon an uncle comes to take him away to live with him in Sicily. The boat that transports them there mysteriously explodes in flame as it sails away from the island. Later, Alfredo learns that his uncle created these destructive fires that guaranteed Alfredo would be isolated with his uncle, to be used for his dark purposes. Alfredo is tutored by his uncle, singing sad psalms and Persian chants, which call up a salamander from the furnace in the uncle's chamber; and the salamander weeps into a vial, giving the uncle a potion that keeps him strong and alive. The uncle is preparing for a ritual and Alfredo slowly understands the horror of it and plots to prevent his uncle from accomplishing his devilish plan. He realizes that the other young man in the household, a so-called idiot, is capable of creating great music with the recorder, music that brings forth the angels of fire, and the two join forces to free the salamander from the uncle's furnace and place himin the crater of the volcano where he can join the others. The uncle is destroyed, and his son�the so-called idiot, Alfredo's cousin�will use his inherited mastery over the mountain to protect those who dwell there. This brief outline of the plot does little to describe the beauty of the language and the wonder of the details in this complex story. This is not going to be a popular YA book, because of its challenges, but for those readers who are fascinated by metaphysics, by music, by intricate fantasy, this is a special treat. KLIATT Codes: JS*�Exceptional book, recommended for junior and senior high school students. 2003, Random House, 197p.,
— Claire Rosser
Children's Literature
For his seventh name-day, Alfredo's Uncle Giorgio gave him a chain with a salamander on it. It is for good luck his parents told him, and it seemed to bring him good luck, for when he wore it he sang beautifully. In fact, he was asked to join the Prince-Cardinal's choir. A terrible fire at his family's bakery/home leaves Alfredo an orphan. His uncle comes for him and takes Alfredo far away to his home where Alfredo discovers real salamanders with whom he communicates through song and eventually comes to understand the meaning of Master of the Mountain. When Alfredo realizes the extent of Uncle Giorgio's evil magical powers, he devises a plot to put an end to the evil in a dangerous, exciting and fiery climax that brings together the salamanders and the molten liquid inside the mountain. Dickinson's use of the symbolism of fire and the power of voice is strong throughout this story of good vs. evil. Alfredo's physical and emotional maturation play an important role. It is an interesting character study, and as such moves more slowly than a story that is plot driven. Dickinson's story will reward good readers who can appreciate his finely tuned phrases. 2003, Wendy Lamb Books/Random House, Ages 12 to 18.
—Sharon Salluzzo
School Library Journal
Gr 6-9-An intriguing, intricately woven fantasy set in Italy and then Sicily. Because of his magnificent voice, Alfredo is selected to be trained as a choirboy. On his name day, he receives a mysterious gift, a gold charm of a salamander on a chain, from his father's estranged brother. Thus starts this complicated tale that relies on folklore related to salamanders as the spirit of fire and the power of music. After Alfredo is orphaned when his family's bakery burns down, the Prince-Cardinal begins to arrange for the painful and dangerous surgery that will make Alfredo a castrati to ensure that his voice will not change. Claiming that he is Alfredo's only living relative, Uncle Giorgio arrives and prevents the operation from taking place. At first Alfredo believes that his uncle cares about him as he takes him away to Mt. Etna. However, he begins to realize that his uncle is a sorcerer, the Master of the Mountain who can control when it will erupt and spew fire on its environs. Giorgio has Alfredo sing for the salamander, and the beauty of the boy's voice makes the creature cry, and readers learn that its tears have restorative powers. Eventually, Alfredo understands that Uncle Giorgio has sinister intentions for him and begins a plan that leads to the man's ultimate destruction. The story takes many twists and turns, some convenient and some confusing. This latest offering from a master storyteller is not an easy read, but fantasy fans will stick with it, hoping for good's triumph.-Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In the wake of Water: Tales of Elemental Spirits (2002), co-authored with Robin McKinley, Dickinson offers an extended tale braided with fire. Orphaned by a sudden, inexplicable blaze, young Alfredo is swept up by his previously distant uncle Giorgio, who turns out to be a sorcerer, living on the slopes of Mount Etna with only mute Annetta and her mentally disabled son Antonio as despised servants. Claiming to be training Alfredo as his successor, Giorgio reveals that he not only controls Etna's huge inner fires, but has captured a salamander, a creature of those fires, whose excreta are solid gold and whose tears are a remedy for any malady save death. And he hints that he's working on even that. But Alfredo, whose intelligence is matched only by his talent and love for singing, gradually comes to realize that Giorgio is the agent of his family's immolation, that Annetta and Toni are more than they seem, and that he himself is slated not to inherit, but fall victim to his uncle's magic. Complex characters, spectacular magical and natural outbursts, taut plotting, and atmospheric writing unite in a coruscating exhibition of storytelling. (Fiction. 11-13)

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Random House Children's Books
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Read an Excerpt

The gift arrived for Alfredo's seventh name-day. It wasn't like his other gifts--the basket of candied cherries, the hobbyhorse, the toy drum--not a gift for a child at all. He opened the little leather pouch and pulled out a fine yellow chain, like the one his big brother, Giorgio, had been given to wear round his neck for his First Communion, but instead of a cross on the end this one had a funny little animal, made of the same yellow stuff as the chain.
He stared at it. The body was like that of one of the little brown lizards that lived in the cracks in the brickwork of the bakehouse, except that it had a long tail that curled under its belly, right round behind and over, with the end hanging down beside its front leg with a sharp hook at the tip. And the spread toes had small hooked claws, and not the sucker pads of the bakehouse lizards.
The head and face were even more different, not like any lizard's, but round and wrinkled, like the face of the little gray ape Alfredo had seen at the great Shrove Tuesday fair, sitting on a hurdy-gurdy with a leash round its neck. Except that the monkey had had a huge wide grin, but this thing's mouth was a little round hole.
"That's a funny animal," he said. "What is it?"
Nobody answered. He looked up, puzzled, aware of an uncomfortable silence in the room.
"What is it, Mother?" he said again.
Mother sighed and looked questioningly at Father.
"It's a present from my brother, your uncle Giorgio," said Father. "To bring you luck."
"You're not going to let him wear it?" said Mother.
"Better than not letting him," said Father, in the voice he used to settle an argument.
"He came to my christening too," said Giorgio, "but he never came to my name-day, or gave me a present, and I'm named for him. He could've brought one when he came to Alfredo's christening, but he never even looked at me. I knew he was my rich uncle so I was set to charm the heart out of him, but he pushed straight past in his posh getup and kissed Mama's hand, all la-di-da. Then he hung over the cradle for a bit, and went off and stuffed himself at the sideboard like he hadn't eaten for a month."
"He didn't pay much attention to anyone," said Mother.
"Never does," said Father. "Better that way. And you are named for my grandfather, not your uncle."
There was an edge in both his parents' voices that Alfredo didn't notice but remembered later, looking back to what had happened on his name-day. At the time he was busy puzzling over the gift his uncle had sent him.
"Yes, but this animal," he said impatiently. "What is it?"
"It's a salamander," said Father, with a chuckle that Alfredo, also later, realized must have been forced. "Perhaps it will bring you luck, little son of mine."

After the excitements of his name-day Alfredo found it hard to sleep. Restless, he crept down to the kitchen for a mug of water. There were cracks of light around the kitchen door, and the sound of Father's voice from beyond it. He hesitated. He caught a few words here and there.
". . . has no children, as far as I know . . . renounced my own birthright--I can't do that for him . . . make up his own mind when he is old enough to understand . . ."
Mother said something, too softly for Alfredo to catch, apart from the note of deep anxiety. Father sighed heavily and answered.
". . . must have its Master. That is the one thing on which he and I ever have been able to agree."
Alfredo crept back upstairs without his drink.

But perhaps the salamander did bring Alfredo luck. Nobody had been able to tell him much about salamanders, except that they lived in the fire in the heart of certain mountains, and that if questioned they would tell you the truth. He was pleased by the bit about the fire. Though he lived in a hot country, he had always loved the bakehouse, especially the glorious moment when Father opened one of the fire-pit doors to add a fresh log, and the huge orange energy, a power like that of the sun, came streaming out. Oh, to live in the heart of such a fire, like a salamander!
So he wore his uncle's gift every day, hidden beneath his shirt, even for church, when Mother had asked him to take it off in case the priests found out. She was nervous of people, but especially priests, because Father distrusted and despised them and said so openly, and Mother was convinced the priests would learn about it and make the whole family do horrible penances. That was one reason why she was so bewildered when it was discovered that Alfredo had a singing voice.
There was no musicianship anywhere in the family. Father would bellow popular songs, all on one note, to the rhythm of his dough-kneading. Neighbors said it was hard to believe anyone could sing so badly if he wasn't doing it on purpose. And Mother would warble as she went about her work with a more varied but no more accurate use of the scale. When he was smaller, Alfredo's attempts to copy his parents had combined the worst of both styles, but now he seemed more to be singing for the sheer joy of doing so, unconsciously putting the tunes to rights as he went. Before long he was singing, or attempting to sing, everything he heard, from the indecent ditties of the sardine fishers to some part in one of the convoluted polyphonies of the cathedral.
Living near the center of the city, they went there to Mass. Shortly after they had emerged one Sunday, Alfredo was sitting on a low wall beside Mother, while Father argued guild business with a rival baker and Giorgio larked with some of his cronies across the square. As he waited Alfredo was trying to re-create something he had just been listening to, the Nunc Dimittis at the end of the service, with the high voice of a single choirboy floating like a gliding gull above the waves of sound from the rest of the choir, and then soaring on alone.
"Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace," he sang, "according to thy word. For mine eyes have seen . . ."
A short, fat priest came stalking by, turned and stared at them. Mother gave her usual start of guilt.
"Don't stop, boy," snapped the priest. "Start at the beginning. . . . Louder . . ."
Astonished but delighted--nobody had ever bothered to listen to his singing before--Alfredo stood, filled his lungs and sang. The chatter around them stilled. People turned to listen. There were amused bravos as he allowed his voice to fade, as the choirboy's had done, into the noon stillness.
"The child has a voice," said the priest. "Who has been teaching him?"
"No one," stammered Mother. "I don't know where he got it from."
She made it sound as though Alfredo had picked up his talent in the street and was now being accused of having stolen it.
"Bring him to the cathedral, the small north door, tomorrow, a little before noon. Ask for me, Father Brava."
Father came striding across, his face stiff with anger.
"No!" he said. "Absolutely not! My son is a man, and must remain a man, and beget sons of his own!"
"The decision is not taken at this age," said the priest calmly. "The voice may not develop. The Prince-Cardinal is both humane and generous. He does not go against the wishes of the parents, but richly rewards those who consent. Meanwhile, your son will go to school, learn to read and write, both Latin and the common tongue. These are gifts not to be despised. You are a baker, I see from your dress. The patronage of the Prince-Cardinal is not to be despised, whereas his disfavor . . . But you are a sensible man, sir. I do not need to tell you that. Come too, with the boy, if your ovens can spare you, and you will be able to discuss matters with the Precentor. . . ."

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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Tears of the Salamander 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Peter Dickinson at its best
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
This should have won the newberry medal for 2003.A good story,with a great ending.The beginning is weird,but it gets better and better.Alfredo is,what I think,a OK name in the book.I have one problem with this book.What if Uncle Giorgio was not going to do what Alfredo thought he would do to him.I think he could survive and then a sequel could be made.Also,the end would be better if Toni became regular again,so he could talk for once.But all in all,this book rocks.
Guest More than 1 year ago
....Peter Dickinson is one of the real masters of children's literature' Correct, you win a goat! This is one of the best books I've ever read! Great characters and everything! Although it's kind of sad that Toni has a defected brain and that Annetta is dumb (in case you didn't know, it means can't speak). My favorite part is where Toni finds Alfredo in the music room and Toni starts to play the recorder like he was born knowing how. GREAT BOOK!!!!!!!!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
This is one of the best books I have ever read!! I thought the da Vinci Code was a great book too and I think T.T.O.T.S. was another great book to add to my library!!
Guest More than 1 year ago
T.T.O.T.S IS THE BEST BOOK I'VE EVER READ [SO FAR]. And peter is a brilliant author he has a 2mile long imagination. I have got to the bit where alfredo is took away by uncle giorgio. KEEP IT UP. -JACK