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.
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.
Nevermoor by Jessica Townsend