Book Review: Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow

by Jessica Townsend

 

I was oblivious to the quietly brewing phenomenon that is Jessica Townsend’s Nevermoor. And upon hearing the Harry Potter comparisons I became skeptical as there have now been so many of those post-Pottermania hopefuls : to the point that if I see ‘the next Harry Potter’ or ‘the best children’s book since Harry Potter’ on a dustjacket, then I immediately put it down.

Such statements are not only often unfair to the new writer being compared, but moreover, they’re ignorant to all of the fantastic books that have emerged since Rowling, and are more telling of a profit hungry publishing company than the celebration of a new writing talent.

Nonetheless, Nevermoor was given to me as a gift by my sister, and lucky it was as I probably wouldn’t have picked it up otherwise.

The first chapter demands detective-work. We find our protagonist Morrigan Crow in a psychologist’s office with her father. We learn that the town Morrigan lives in, Jackalfax, is plagued by bad luck. We come to learn also that Morrigan who because she was born on a day called Eventide, is considered by the entire town to be the source of that bad luck. We learn that Morrigan’s father, a cold and ambitious politician has very little love for her and we find Morrigan herself coming to terms with her impending execution on the next Eventide.

The first chapter takes a little working out, though once through, the rest of the book flows like an enchanted babbling brook. The book jumps to a whole other level of fun when we’re introduced to the Nevermoorian mentor Jupiter North: a brilliantly constructed character who is part Dumbledore, part Willy Wonka, and yet something more charismatic and delightfully wicked than both of them. He whisks Morrigan away to the titular town of Nevermoor

With the film rights already snapped up by 20th Century Fox, it is hard not to do fantasy-casting of the Jupiter North role. It is precisely the kind of thing Johnny Depp could do if we weren’t already so tired of his oddball performances in children’s fare. Benedict Cumberbatch comes to mind or even James McAvoy whose eccentric potential seems untapped. Sadly, Heath Ledger, ultimately would have made the absolute perfect Jupiter North.

So with the Potter comparisons abound, why don’t we, just for the sake of it, go with it. If it weren’t a fair idea to do so then I wouldn’t normally, though as a first time author, Townsend holds her own on a number of fronts and, in my opinion, even goes one further.

Townsend’s Nevermore is an interesting creation, though it feels at times like shes thrown everything including the kitchen sink at it, and in that way it feels, at times, like an anything-goes jumble of ideas. There is a race for the flag scene that features unicorns, camels, horses, rhinoceroses and a giant talking cat. Townsend’s humourous prose makes it work but at the end of the day, the feeling that this world is thrown together in a slapdash way, can’t be avoided: even if in reality, the world wasn’t thrown together in a slapdash way (Townsend has been working on this book for more than 10 years).

Other bits that jar include awkward references to gods and an afterlife that are absolutely created yet religion isn’t fully discussed. This might be alright were it not for her ‘Hallowmas’ concept, which clearly combines two traditions from the real world (I won’t spoil which ones), yet does nothing to describe this day or tradition at all in terms of its actual purpose in Nevermoor.

Rowling has the edge on Townsend in verisimilitude: the small details that make up the wizarding world are imaginative, detailed, cohesive and plausible. There are times where Townsend achieves this, though at other times Nevermoor’s ideas do feel a little bit thrown together. Nonetheless, to be devils advocate to myself, that thrown-togetherness has a kind of wild and irreverent sense of excitement not seen in the work of fantasy purists, or canonical British fantasists like Rowling, Wynne Jones, or Cressida Cowell. Townsend has simply thrown the fantasy rulebook out the window. Whether or not this was a good move is yet to be known with Nevermoor set to be a series of six books.

Elsewhere, a few minor quibbles. I’m not at all a fan of the Australian in-jokes. Two of Nevermoor’s districts are called Farnham and Barnes, and though Australian readers might find it cute, (Do Australian tweens even get the references?) I think it shows another lack of dedication to her world-building. How can the reader get invested in the world of Nevermoor when some of its details feel at once trivial and empty. Written over ten years, there are no real excuses for these imaginatively empty city districts named after Australian baby boomer rock stars.

But now, lets talk about the things Townsend does better than Rowling. And yes, there’s quite a few of them.

Townsend’s prose, after the sometimes clunky and exposition-heavy first chapter, is fresh, resourceful, suspenseful, humorous, and alive. There are sometimes so many colourful and fresh ideas on a double page spread that you’re tempted to reread it just to make sure there were indeed so many. There were times where I thought, if Rowling could write as economically as this, some of the later Potters would have half the page-count.

Townsend is funny. Like really funny. Most of it comes via Jupiter North which is what makes him so delightful. There are puns galore and be warned, dad jokes too.

Elsewhere the tone shifts gears from the humorously bizarre to the downright terrifying with two ghastly villains each with an entirely different brand of villainy. The Hunt of Smoke and Shadow resembles a demonic aristocratic foxing party complete with shadowy hounds and smokey stallions. It is a haunting creation that you can almost hear galloping across the cobbles of your heart. The other one, I won’t spoil, but it’s even better.

With the story’s structure featuring three trials to gain residency in Nevermoor, the book has elements of the hero’s journey and most resembles Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. Though the trials are swiftly told, it is the interesting stuff happening in between that build the sense of mystery.

BookForest Verdict

Jessica Townsend has created a charming fantasy yarn. In its DNA are the well known fantasy institutions: Harry Potter, Mary Poppins, Peter Pan, Studio Ghibli, and the work of Roald Dahl. But they are remixed in fresh and inventive ways and realized with Townsend’s clean prose, irreverent humour, and studied storytelling. A terrifying villain lends the whimsical story a great sense of depth. I look forward to the next book in the series and hope that she does away with the in-jokes and awkward real-world references, in favor of truly committing to her role as an compelling new fantasist.

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Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend

Ideas 3

Storytelling 4

Writing 5

Suspense 4

Intrigue 3

Magic 3
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Total 22/30
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M for Magnificat

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Book Review: The 13 ½ Lives of Captain Bluebear: a novel

by Walter Moers

On the cover of the English language version of Walter Moers bright yellow fantasy debut, The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear, there is a quote describing the German fantasist’s imagination as being ‘…like J.K Rowling on ecstacy.”

Sometimes quotes sell books, and possibly this one did. After all, Moers debut novel (let’s henceforth refer to it as ‘Captain Bluebear’), though markedly different to the Harry Potter series, was released in his native Germany, the very same year the term ‘Pottermania’ first became widespread.

No doubt that in 1999, the wind from Rowling’s wizarding world helped fill the sails of the ship that brought Moers into the international fantasy zeitgeist, as readers caught up in Pottermania were, between Rowling’s books and Lord of the Rings movies, looking for something else to tide them over.

It should be noted early on, that although Captain Bluebear appears in some ways, a book pitched at young readers, it isn’t quite. Perhaps in the same way that much of the subtext of Douglas Adams Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, or Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels might fall flat on younger readers, so too might Moer’s tongue-in-cheek philosophical gags. This might be made further confusing as after the success of the book in Moer’s native Germany, Captain Bluebear himself, became a character in an animated children’s television movie.

Moer’s prose is clear with flourishes both pragmatic and erudite, though the magnitude of concepts therein render it quite exposition heavy at times. Imagine Tolkien’s obsessive detail applied to a narrative in an imaginary world that is for the most part downright bonkers, and you might get an idea. The narrative payoffs are a slow burn as you absorb Moer’s inexhaustible imaginative ideas, but when they do finally land, his wildly zany storytelling genius becomes apparent. There are laugh out loud moments here that rival Douglas Adams, Jack Handey, and Woody Allen’s Without Feathers.

So what are these 13½ lives all about? Well, the 13½ lives are in fact chapters in Captain Bluebear’s life. In the opening chapter, he is rescued at sea from the spiralling clutches of an enormous whirlpool by minipirates, who as it were, are precisely what they seem like: miniature pirates. Fortunately for all involved, Bluebear in his infancy, is also very small, so he can actually board their ship. They raise him, feed him, and give him a crash course in all things maritime yet he soon outgrows them and begins to sink their boat as a result, and thus he moves on to his next life.

Moers takes a basic, if offbeat premise, for each of the chapters and goes into a sort of frenzy in teasing out the oddest details, resulting in laugh out loud humour. A chapter in which Bluebear attempts to enter a mirage of a city by having four friends approach it from different sides at the same time was a standout chapter for myself.

Credit goes to John Brownjohn for his excellent work in translating Moer’s droll humour from the original German.

BookForest Verdict

The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear is in part, the literary equivalent to hot chocolate with marshmallows, and in part a testament to the generosity and scope of the imagination. The reading experience alone is like having your brain tickled and the deeper into the great yellow tome you get, the more intense it becomes. Moer’s orchestrates a blend of ideas that are at once, both eccentric and profound.  Embellished with the authors own quirky illustrations, this book is a treasure chest of fun and a genuine fantasy adventure.

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The 13½ Lives of Captain Bluebear by Walter Moers

Ideas 5

Storytelling 4

Writing 5

Suspense 3

Intrigue 5

Magic 5
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Total 27/30
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A for Alpine Imps————————————————–

 

Book Review: The Fog Diver

By Joel Ross

Age Range 11-14

Image result for the fog diver

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A character-driven adventure novel that despite some highly original and thought provoking science fiction / steampunk concepts, prefers to lean more heavily on its relationship-drama beats.

The Fog Diver presents readers with a fairly realized world that is bound to be expanded upon in subsequent books. Despite only being lightly explored in this, the first book in the series, it is undoubtedly an excellent premise that writer Joel Ross has imagined.

The Fog Diver is set in the world as we know it, after being engulfed by a thick and deadly fog of nanites. The Nanites were ironically designed to rid the world of pollution but upon recognizing humans as the key source of pollution, evolved into a fog encoded to eradicate the human race. Now, the survivors live on the highest mountain peaks of the world above the fog in the last habitable places and travel in pneumatic airships. It’s all very steampunk at times, and is certainly among the best examples of the genre available for tween readers.

The protagonist, a boy Chess, is immune to the fog, enabling him to be a tetherboy; someone who dives from an airship through the fog to explore the human-less surface below. There, Chess scavenges for all manner of valuable items in the hope of finding something that could afford him and his crew passage off the slum-like lower slopes of the mountainside.

Chess’s ability is rare, almost unheard of and thus he is wanted by the villainous Lord Kodoc who wishes to use Chess to locate the Compass, a device which can purportedly control the nanites and allow its operator control over the fog and therefore the world.

Ross characterises the books tone and characters through their discovery and bewilderment of the strange artefacts Chess collects. They are everyday items that the reader will immediately recognise though that the central characters can only guess of their intended function. Additionally, Ross weaves in all sorts of misremembered history. Not only do these kids mistake Star Wars for myth but they go further and combine pop culture icons in hilarious ways that really entertain between the drama and tense suspense.

BookForest Verdict

The Fog Diver has an excellent premise, lots of humour and suspense that leads to a story in which almost each chapter ends on a cliffhanger, propelling the reader through its lean narrative. And therein is perhaps the books limitation; its fast pace puts a limit on the sense of discovery in this world. There are really three lean acts in The Fog Diver and it certainly leaves you wanting to come back for more. It is a book very much for its age group and I do hope the series gains a following. Though in a post Harry Potter world, it has neither the depth nor detail to let it stand out as anything other than another really good series for young adults in an increasingly talent-crowded market.

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The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

Ideas 5

Storytelling 4

Writing 5

Suspense 4

Intrigue 3

Magic 3
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Total 24/30
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C for Clockwork Airships————————————————–