For as long as there have been storytellers, there have been tales of children and magic. We are, in fact, living in an era where a certain British author dominates our imagination with her portentous kids and their arcane powers that they use to fight against evil and injustice.
That brings us to 32-year-old Australian author Jessica Townsend and her very first book, Nevermoor: The Trials Of Morrigan Crow, which is all about a very young girl and a world of sorcery.
Morrigan, who lives in the town of Jackalfax, is an officially registered “cursed child” bound to die at midnight on her 12th birthday. Because of her condemnation, she’s blamed for all the problems in Greater Jackalfax. Dead cats, broken railway lines, flubbed tests at school – they’re all her fault.
To a lesser degree, her troubles become her family’s responsibility too. But her life is destined to end before she becomes a teenager, and so relieve them of the burden of paying reparations to those harmed by her existence.
On the eve of her death, however, Morrigan receives an invitation from Jupiter North, a mysterious patron, to attend the Wundrous Society in Nevermoor (a fantasy version of London, where Townsend lived in her 20s and started writing this novel).
Of course, there’s a mysterious big bad also vying to get in contact with Morrigan. The Wundersmith is a mass murderer who’s been banished from Nevermoor for his crimes. Having a notorious criminal actively looking for you can’t be a good thing.
Cursed kids, mystical adults, an education in magic, mysterious letters that find their way to their recipients no matter what – these are fairly standard tropes from the wizardly child genre.
But Townsend steadfastly weaves a story of her own, burnishing fairly standard young adult fantasy elements into a thoroughly enjoyable romp. It’s not so much of a JK Rowling/Harry Potter redux, but more of a Roald Dhal splashed with Enid Blyton, Sheri S. Tepper and a soupcon of Brandon Sanderson type adventure.
What hit so unexpectedly with this first book of a trilogy (though Townsend says she has plotted seven in her head) is how poignant it feels when Morrigan opens up to her inner feelings. Townsend excels in imparting emotion to the page, making us feel for her characters in visceral ways.
There are, of course, tests that Morrigan must pass if she is to enter the Wundrous Society, including a written exam where she is admonished by Jupiter North to answer honestly instead of correctly. With this twist, she is forced to respond frankly as to what her greatest fear is.
Sure, we can all reply to questions like that quickly – but honestly? That’s a whole different thing. If we had to candidly answer this query from a stranger, would we be able to? What is the truth that secretly hides in your heart, unseen by the rest of the world? It’s precisely this type of writing that makes Nevermoor stand out.
Sure, we’ve got umbrellas that let you fly, giant cats you can ride, and dragons and vampire dwarves (not dwarf vampires, there’s a difference), and semi-sentient hotels – Nevermoor is packed with thrilling things. But beyond the frippery, there’s a true heart to this story that’s exhilarating to discover.
The older I’ve become and the more I’ve read, I’ve learned to treasure being surprised by a book. Townsend’s subtle ability to deal out unexpected astonishment in spades is perhaps the singular reason Nevermoor is so refreshing. She truly excels in delivering twists exactly when we think we’ve got a grip on where the plot is heading.
Nevermoor, which took Townsend almost 10 years to complete, is a most welcomed entry into a massive genre. In fact, the film rights have already been sold to a Hollywood studio. It is suitable for all ages, especially anyone who enjoys a bang-up magical child romp.
Nevermoor: The Trials Of Morrigan Crow
Author: Jessica Townsend
Publisher: Little Brown, fantasy