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  • Tears of the Salamander
  • Written by Peter Dickinson
  • Format: eBook | ISBN: 9780307547934
  • Our Price: $6.99
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Tears of the Salamander

Written by Peter DickinsonAuthor Alerts:  Random House will alert you to new works by Peter Dickinson


List Price: $6.99


On Sale: May 14, 2009
Pages: 208 | ISBN: 978-0-307-54793-4
Published by : Wendy Lamb Books RH Childrens Books
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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 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.


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.
Peter Dickinson

About Peter Dickinson

Peter Dickinson - Tears of the Salamander

Photo © Fay Godwin

“What it has felt like to be writing for the young during the last thirty years. . . . can all be summarised in one word—Lucky. I feel extraordinarily fortunate in a whole number of ways.”—Peter Dickinson

Peter Dickinson, two-time winner both of England’s prestigious Carnegie Medal and the Whitbread Children’s Award, is one of Britain’s greatest storytellers, and the author of many novels for young readers and adults. His books include the Boston Globe–Horn Book Honor Novel, Eva, as well as the Printz Honor Book The Ropemaker and many other award-winning titles.


Peter Dickinson is a tall, elderly, bony, beaky, wrinkled sort of fellow, with a lot of untidy grey hair and a weird hooting voice—in fact he looks and sounds a bit like Gandalf’s crazy twin, but he’s only rather absent-minded, probably because he’s thinking about something else. Day-dreaming, mostly.

He was born in the middle of Africa, within earshot of the Victoria Falls. Baboons sometimes came into the school playground. When people went swimming in the Zambezi they did it in a big wooden cage let down into the water, so that the crocs couldn’t get at them. For the hot weather the family went south to his grandfather’s ostrich farm in South Africa.

Then the family came back to England so that he and his brothers could go to English schools, where they taught him mostly Latin and Greek. He didn’t have an English lesson after he was twelve, and nobody ever told him to write a story. He was fairly good at games.

He’s led an ordinary kind of life—not much by way of adventures, but some silly things. Such as? Well, when he had to join the army, just after World War II, they managed to turn him into two people; so he was bashing away at infantry training at a camp in Northern Ireland when two sea-sick military policemen showed up and arrested him for being a deserter from a different camp in the south of England, where his other self was supposed to be bashing away.

He was tutoring a boy in a huge old castle in Scotland when the butler (it was that sort of household) said to him at dinner one day “Ah, sir, it’s a long time since we heard screams coming from the West Wing!” (Peter’s screams, not the boy’s.)

And he was knocked down by a tram on his way to the interview for his first job and arrived all covered with blood and dirt, but they gave him the job because he was the only candidate. He stayed there seventeen years.

He and his first wife had two daughters and two sons, and he now has six grandchildren. He lives in a ramshackle old house in a green valley in the south of England, with his second wife, the American writer Robin McKinley, and three whippets. Now, they really are crazy.

On Writing

Peter says he didn’t become a writer. He just is one, and always has been, ever since he can remember, the way a goldfish is a goldfish and can’t be anything else. Go to a zoo and look at one of the big birds, a condor, say, a creature made to soar above the Andes. They’ve probably clipped one of its wings so that it can’t hurt itself trying to fly around its cage, but it’s still a creature made to soar above the Andes. If you somehow stopped Peter writing, he’d still be a writer.

But he was a poet and a journalist before he started on books. He tried a murder story first, but got stuck half way through. Then he had a science-fictiony kind of nightmare, and decided to turn it into a children’s story, mainly to see if writing it would unstick the other book. (It did. That book won a prize for the best murder story of the year, and the children’s book is now being made into a TV film, though it was written over thirty years ago.)

Since then he’s written getting on fifty books, almost all of them on a little old portable typewriter—one draft, to see what he’s got, and what else he needs to know and so on; then a bit of research; then a complete rewrite, beginning to end; and then, if all’s well, only a bit more tinkering. Sometimes it takes a few month, sometimes a year or more. He’s just moved over to a PC. He’s still getting used it. It makes writing seem a very different kind of process—easier in some ways, harder in others.

The ideas come from all over the place—day-dreams, sometimes, or a kid on a long car-trip saying “Tell us a new story, dad.” Or something he’s heard or read—a voice on the radio saying “Even a hardened government soldier may hesitate a fatal half-second before he guns down a child.” (That was AK, about a boy guerrilla in Africa.) For the best of them it feels as if the book had knocked on the door of his mind and said “Write me.” Then he’ll spend half a year or more letting the stranger in and finding who or what it is.

He writes all sorts of books. His last book was a long exotic fantasy—magicians and unicorns and so on—called The Ropemaker, and in May there’s going to be his first collaboration with his wife, Robin McKinley, called Water; Tales of the Elemental Spirits, in which each of them has written three stories about some of the magical creatures that inhabit our rivers and seas. (They hope to do the other three elements over the next few years.) A story Peter was working on for the Fire volume insisted on expanding to book length (working title The Tears of the Salamander) which will be his next book out. And he’s now working on a short book called Inside Grandad, about a modern boy who . . . but no, he’d better find out who the stranger is before he starts talking about him.


“Peter Dickinson is one of the real masters of children’s literature.”—Philip Pullman

“A challenging magical adventure for the thinking reader.”—Starred, Publishers Weekly

“While on one level this tale is a fantasy, it is also a wonderful coming-of-age story.”—Starred, School Library Journal

“Dickinson works his own magic in a thoroughly compelling tale that delves into the nature of both magic and time.”—Starred, Booklist


“Complex characters, spectacular magical and natural outbursts, taut plotting, and atmospheric writing unite in a coruscating exhibition of storytelling.”—Kirkus Reviews, Starred

“The fierce beauty of the mountain and its fire will linger in memory.”—Booklist, Starred

From the Trade Paperback edition.

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