Philip Womack

Frights and Fantasies

Being a cursed child, young Morrigan has it pretty bad. The heroine of Jessica Townsend’s sumptuous debut, Nevermoor (Orion Children’s Books 373pp £12.99), is held responsible for whatever goes wrong in her city. Her father, an ambitious politician, is constantly paying out compensation for everything from dead cows to boys losing spelling competitions. What’s worse, she’s fated to die on a particular night. Her cold family simply see her as an inconvenience – her frightful stepmother even measures her up for a coffin while she’s having her portrait painted. So when the glamorous, lushly maned Jupiter North appears and offers to take her away in an eight-legged craft named Octavia, it’s understandable that Morrigan wants to go with him into the land of Nevermoor. Townsend’s fantasy world is a delightful mixture of Diana Wynne Jones and J K Rowling: Morrigan (or Mog, as she, rather unwillingly, is known) must undergo trials to find her special talent, while negotiating the wonders of this new realm, which include a giant cat, a hotel that changes its decor at will, a dragon-riding friend and a mean girl who can manipulate people’s minds. Townsend is a highly promising writer, playful, yet with a dark streak that will keep children hooked.

Fantasy lands are an essential part of children’s literature: we go to them to understand things in different ways, to seek truths and confront fears. Alice learns many things obliquely in Wonderland, including how to be a mother. Kate Saunders, in The Land of Neverendings (Faber & Faber 316pp £10.99), uses both Lewis Carroll and C S Lewis as reference points for her fantasy world, Smockeroon, which is where toys go when you’re not looking. Her heroine, Emily, has recently lost her disabled sister and her death hangs heavy over the family. One day, things start to go out of kilter when toys begin to talk. Being toys, they are completely bonkers, which is one of the many delights of this book: they sing silly songs, go on ridiculous trips and cause chaos (turning a visit to a factory into a jelly fight). Over it all hangs the dark shadow of a black, venomous toad. Through her interactions with the other world, Emily learns how to deal with death, a difficult subject Saunders handles with immense sensitivity, charm and wit. She lost her own son, Felix, at the age of nineteen, and some of the stories she told him made their way into this book. It is both a joyful testament to the importance of childhood and play and a deeply felt acknowledgement of heartbreak.

Andrew Norriss’s Mike (David Fickling Books 263pp £10.99) inverts the old doppelgänger story. Normally when you see your double, it’s a harbinger of death. But not here. Mike is a promising tennis star; his parents run a tennis court-making company. All his life he’s followed the path laid out for him: local championships, sponsorship deals, Wimbledon. Then one day a young man appears on the court and disturbs his play. The only problem is that nobody else can see him. What follows is a skilful examination of generational pressure and family dynamics, as well as an insight into the psychology of competition. The doppelgänger, whom Mike calls Floyd, has a message for him; it’s up to Mike to decode it and find out what he really wants to do with his life. Both well written and gripping, this novel provides an original message about individuality and the need for balance in all things.

More teens struggling to make sense of the world can be found in Sally Gardner’s latest, My Side of the Diamond (Hot Key 240pp £9.99), an unusual take on a close encounter with an alien. The story is told in the form of interviews with a mysterious Mr Jones. The various characters recall the mysteries surrounding Becky, a promising novelist, and Icarus, a beautiful, strange man who can walk through walls. Gardner’s skill here lies in building up the narrative through a gradual accumulation of detail. Her writing, as ever, is replete with arresting phrases and elegant imagery; the other world that Icarus hails from is only briefly hinted at but is still lusciously enticing. A half-alien cyborg hybrid is on the loose, dressed as a punk, and the tension mounts until the full story becomes clear and a final decision must be made.

I rarely review new books in a series if I’ve already covered an earlier instalment, but a special place exists for Jonathan Stroud’s Lockwood & Co, which comes to an end with The Empty Grave (Corgi 547pp £7.99). Stroud has created a uniquely compelling parallel world in which ghosts are an ever-present threat, and children, being the only ones who can see them, are daily sent into battle against them. Intelligent, finely honed and immensely involving, this is a brilliantly tenebrous finale in which we uncover the true nature of the sinister Fittes Agency and the motives of its founder, Penelope Fittes. Lucy, the narrator, is as bold and charming as ever; her companion, a grumpy skull, provides moments of light relief. Lockwood, our stylish hero, faces some serious dangers, including a visit to the world of the dead. This is a superb novel, and I recommend the whole series to any child.

With Witchborn (Chicken House 324pp £6.99), Nicholas Bowling has produced a fine, brainy debut that sees the daughter of a witch thrown into Bedlam, where soon she encounters some deeply mysterious goings-on, along with the phantoms of Mary Queen of Scots, the Witchfinder General and John Dee. While the Elizabethan setting doesn’t quite come off and the plot finale strains credulity (even within the bounds of witchcraft), this novel is still very much worth investigating. I hope that we will see more soon from Bowling, who is a talented and assured writer.

There is a trend for soppy Christmas books, so it is a delight to encounter Ross Montgomery’s Christmas Dinner of Souls (Faber & Faber 232pp £8.99), which bears the promising subtitle ‘’Tis the Season to be Terrified’. Lewis is a young boy who throws stones through the windows of the gloomy Souls College; as a punishment he is made to work there on Christmas night, where a terrible feast attended by the most ghastly, Christmas-hating human beings possible is taking place. Seven of them must tell a story and Montgomery pulls off a clever feat: the tales begin as gore fests but gradually become more subtle, and more frightening. There are echoes of Chris Priestley’s Uncle Montague series here, as well as of Roald Dahl and Joan Aiken, but there are also many genuinely frightening moments. The standout story sees a young girl’s inheritance misused. She takes a terrible revenge eventually, and boy is it worth it.

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