Harry and Lyra versus Morrigan Crow

Here are three best-selling fantasy series: Harry Potter (of which I have read all several times over), Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials (of which I have read all, including the latest: The Secret Commonwealth) and Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor series, of which I have read the first title, The Trials of Morrigan Crow – there are two more: Wundersmith and a third instalment due out in 2020, Hollowpox.

When I was reading Nevermoor, I wondered why it didn’t grab me as much as the other two series (which I count as among my favourite books). I did enjoy Nevermoor but I did not rate it as highly as many other fantasy book aimed at the child and YA market. I was more engaged by Christelle Dabos’s Mirror Visitor books, whose strange, exaggerated imagined world, loosely based on a Victorian era mis-en-scene, has something in common with Townsend’s own Nevermoor. Dabos’s books are perhaps aimed more at an older readership, and this lends a certain dark malice to the wacky characters, and her heroine, Ophelia, being older than Morrigan, has more agency. I often found myself being put off by some of the devices in Nevermoor, that seemed like something out of a child’s picture book: the brolly rail which characters can catch by hanging on to their umbrellas, the ever-changing bedroom, the ‘umble, chimney sweeper-like boy who befriends Morrigan. There is an Alice in Wonderland feel to it all – I could never see the appeal in that tale.

So, Nevermoor is aimed at a younger readership but so were the first Harry Potter books (Harry was 11, the same age as Morrigan) and Pullman’s The Northern Lights. What these latter books have is a level of seriousness, and a level of realness. Okay, the Dursleys are pretty exaggerated but you do get a sense that Harry is a normal kid coping with the circumstances meted out to him – school and a difficult home life. I also thought that Lyra’s real life was established at Jordan College where there was a lot of ‘normal life’ going on, like responsibilities, and an adult life of complications just beyond Lyra’s understanding.

With Morrigan, there is no ‘normal’ life, as such, established. She is in a strange, alternative world and she is a strange, alternative person – a cursed child, blamed for every calamity big or small in the region and, who, it is preordained, will die on her eleventh birthday.

I suppose I am saying that I like a real-life anchor to this sort of fantasy to leaven the whimsy and flummery of fantasy worlds such as Nevermoor.

I haven’t read the second instalment, Wundersmith, so perhaps Morrigan grows up and learns to face horrors and find a way through them herself. Certainly, at the end of Nevermoor, this is suggested.

Angel Mage by Garth Nix

We are in a reimagined 17th century Europe where something terrible has happened in Ystara (Spain). The inhabitants that survived fled and are now an underclass of ‘refusers’ in Surance (France). They are immune from the angelic powers that act as a sort of power source in the society (angel power is called upon by using icons – this might be for healing, or for building, or for protection, or pretty much anything). Refusers who are touched by angelic magic either die quickly of the ash blood plague or are turned into violent ‘beastlings’. Cardinals who can harness the powers of the highest angels are in charge, along with the Queen. The story revolves around a powerful icon-maker,  Liliath, thought dead a century before, who comes back to life plotting revenge.

Angel Mage references Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and much of the novel revolves around the development and interaction of the four musketeers – Dorotea an icon painter (and based on D’Artagnan), Henri, a clerk, Simeon, a doctor and Agnez, a swashbuckling cadet musketeer. These are great characters, and a lot of fun, but the exposition around them takes up a lot of the book so that we get a lot of banter between them, when they should actually be solving the conundrum around the mysterious Lady Dehiems and what the hell the Night Crew of the refusers are up to. Still, as you would expect of Nix, there is a lot to like here — great world building, a lot of thrills and adventure, romantic entanglements and empathetic characters.

Mr Nix says this is a stand alone novel, but there’s a lot of backgrounding and build up of the main characters, and a complicated and interesting world, so that I’d be pretty surprised if there wasn’t more stories set in ‘Surance and neighbouring states’.

The Keep – Jennifer Egan

I haven’t read Egan’s award-winning ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’ (2010) but ‘The Keep’ (2006) appears to be a precursor re her interest in metafiction, the use of intertextual devices etc. The ‘hero’ here is Danny, a New York dude who arrives in an unnamed Eastern European town because a childhood friend, Howard, sent him a free airfare and he had to get out of New York for crossing some underworld types. Danny strikes out at night to find the castle that Howard is renovating, intending to turn it into a hotel. There is no light, strange undergrowth and an impenetrable wall. Danny is dragging a portable satellite dish with him because he can’t stand to be out of touch with his NY friends. Funny how this plot device is redundant now, just ten years later, such is the perils of the speed of modern technology for writers.

While the smart-talking Danny could have been irritating, he is actually quite funny, and because he’s self-deprecating we forgive him his cynicism. He does get into the castle and find Howard (who after descending to drug-addiction etc. after a childhood trauma has made a motza out of bond trading) who is a sort of Steve Jobs figure to a horde of back-packer volunteers who are doing the renovation for him. There is also a tough-guy offsider called Mick who Danny recognises as a ‘number two’ figure to the great man, because Danny, too, has played the ‘number two’ role to some ‘number one’ men as well.

Things start to get decidedly stranger from here. There is a weird pool in the castle grounds where Danny sees strange shapes move beneath the water. There is also a keep where an ancient baroness (My family have lived here for generations and you can’t get rid of me – we saw off the Tartars and we’ll see off you etc.) is holed up.

Meanwhile we meet another character, Ray, who is doing time for murder and undertaking a writing course in gaol run by Holly. Ray finds he is good at writing and it provides him with the release from his predicament he craves (his cell-mate gets his release by listening to messages from a ‘radio’ he’s made out of a cardboard box). It probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that Ray is actually writing the story about Danny and the castle. His fellow prisoners in the writing class ask newbie questions like: ‘Did this happen to you Ray?’, ‘You’re Danny aren’t you?’, ‘I don’t believe you could make this seem so real if it didn’t happen to you’ etc. As well as writing, Ray is falling for the teacher, Holly.

As the story progresses we find out that Danny has played a part in the childhood trauma suffered by Howard, and he (Danny) begins to suspect that Howard has brought him to the castle to wreak some form of revenge. Danny experiences a number of mishaps that may or may not be affecting his mind – with a supreme effort he manages to escape to the nearby town. Waiting around he buys an antique map of the castle, and when he can’t get out of the town and goes back to the castle, Howard thinks he’s a hero for finding the map that shows some ‘missing links’, i.e. tunnels that thread beneath the castle. These tunnels play a part in the denouement which neatly connects Danny, Ray, Howard and Mick.

Egan runs a fine line, messing with the readers’ sense of suspended disbelief, but it is so much fun, and Danny turns out to be such an endearing character, that she gets away with it.