While most of our reviews are of NZ titles, occasionally we check out what is being hyped overseas. Each of these titles are the stars of Christmas for their publishers, and they share similarities in their London-ish setting, and their magical elements. But while The Wondering is a Dickensian tale of good versus evil, Nevermoor has myriad shades of grey. Read my reviews to find out a little more.
The Wonderling, by Mira Bartok
The Wonderling is set in a world where animals are a little human, and sometimes humans are a little animal. It’s a world filled with danger and ruled by five oligarchical human brothers, all dressed in white.
The tale begins at Ms Carbunkle’s Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures, an orphanage for groundlings. Ms Carbunkle is not a kind woman, and hates her charges with a passion, only putting up with them as factory workers, to help her in her diabolical plan to create enough mechanical beetles to… well, that would be telling.
Our main character goes by many names. Number 13 is the most hated of these names, but this is what he is called most frequently throughout his journey. He is also known as Arthur, by his friend and co-adventurer Trinket. Arthur is a man-fox, mostly man but with a fox face and one foxy ear. He has the ability to hear things that others can’t. And he sings, in his sleep.
Arthur is a man-fox, mostly man but with a fox face and one foxy ear. He has the ability to hear things that others can’t.
Trinket is described thus: ‘She was a bird – a bird with no wings, just two feathery appendages sticking out from her sides, and no tail feathers either… her beak was long, slender and curved.’ Somehow this, plus a beautiful drawing of Arthur and Trinket, wasn’t enough to help me to understand that Trinket is actually a kiwi. She can’t fly, but she has the most incredible ability to ‘tinker’ and invent machines to help her and her companion.
Arthur saves Trinket from bullying, and in return Trinket gives him the name Arthur (as in the king) and tells him the most wonderful stories, giving Arthur hope and the desire to escape their fate. And so our adventure begins.
I’m going to take a moment here and be honest. This book was very expected for me. There was nothing that deviated from the usual adventure story arc, and the writing wasn’t strong enough to make it different enough for me to want to read on and on and on. So you might see in my review a little bit of disbelief. And I’m willing to state that perhaps my problem is that I am an adult, with very high expectations of children’s books. But here goes.
The two companions journey through the countryside, and Trinket goes to find her uncle whilst Arthur carries on into the big city – Lumentown. On the way they meet Pinecone, a boy who lives with his family in a hollowed-out tree. To Arthur, this tree feels like home. But he has to go on, because the only thing he knows about his past is an address in Lumentown, and he wants to find his family.
When Arthur reaches Lumentown it is a lot like Dorothy reaching the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. ‘Rising from both sides of the boulevard were magnificent white buildings with soaring spires.’ There are well-dressed humans, walking cats on leashes, and they affect not to see him. He quickly learns that groundlings aren’t welcome there, they live in the other part of the city – the slums. And worse yet, in Gloomentown. He is resting by the river, when Quintus the Rat robs him, then befriends him and gives him a place to stay.
When Arthur reaches Lumentown it is like Dorothy reaching the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz. ‘Rising from both sides of the boulevard were magnificent white buildings with soaring spires.’
As we carry on our journey with Arthur, we occasionally switch back to see what is happening in Ms Carbunkle’s home, which gives the reader an idea of the evil that she is plotting, while also noting the uprising of ‘The Rat’ and the downfall of Mr Sneezeweed, and filling in back story as to why, exactly, she is so evil.
Quintus sets Arthur a task: to rob a very particular house which has a music machine in it. Music was banned at Ms Carbunkle’s home, and Arthur’s ability to hear more than others makes him fond of it. So finding this music/sleep machine is the most joyful moment of his life. When he discovers that his old mistress is trying to rid the world of music altogether, he has to do something to save it.
Via some ingenius tinkering to create a messenger robot, Trinket and Arthur find each other again, and some unlikely creatures come to the aid of our furred and feathered friends – with a particularly nice cameo from a poetry-obsessed mouse.
I didn’t get fully engaged in The Wonderling, and it think it had something to do with the characterisation. Arthur is a wholly good character, with no flaws except for shyness – he is brave, strong and smart when he needs to be. Trinket likewise is wholly good, while Ms Carbunkle is wholly bad, as is Mr Sneezeweed. A little more nuance in these characters would have made this a much better book for me. That said, the setting was beautifully imagined, and the world-building was very good.
The illustrations are beautiful and well-placed, and Mira Bartok is indeed a talented creator.
I would recommend The Wonderling to a dedicated adventure reader aged 8+. It’s a good adventure, with a believable world that draws some apt similarities to our own, and with a good cast of characters. But it never quite achieves excellent, and from the packaging, that was what I was expecting.
by Mira Bartok
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, by Jessica Townsend
Wow, what a contrast! I was utterly engrossed in Nevermoor from the get-go. Debut author Jessica Townsend gets that to make you want to read an entire story focused on one key character, they need to be complex, interesting and only mostly good.
Morrigan Crow is a ‘cursed child’. Born the previous Eventide, she knows that she is doomed to die the following Eventide (each Age is comprised of Morningtide, Basking, Dwendelsun and Gloaming, and lasts a varying amount of years). She also knows she is a great disappointment to her family, her politician father especially. Her life changes when she persuades her father to let her attend the Jacklefax children’s Bid Day with him – and receives not one, not two, but four bids. As she has never had a formal education, owing to the townspeople’s fright of her, this is especially surprising.
Morrigan is interviewed by the innocuous Mr Jones on behalf of Ezra Squall (remember that name), but this is interrupted by her father, who thinks he has been made fun of with her bids. On their return home, The Skyfaced Clock changes: Eventide is upon them. The town rejoices, while Morrigan and her father go home to have a special dinner before her expected demise. But all doesn’t quite go as planned. There is a mysterious contract, a handsome stranger with flaming red hair, and a steampunk long-legged octopod: and suddenly, Morrigan’s world is turned inside-out.
There is a mysterious contract, a handsome stranger with flaming red hair, and a steampunk long-legged octopod: and suddenly, Morrigan’s world is turned inside-out.
We enter Nevermoor, a place of Wunder. In the Republic, where Morrigan lived, Wunder acted as a type of energy source. In Nevermoor, it is that and much, much more. Morrigan is one of 300 students who have been brought to its capital to compete for a place in the Wundrous Society, the group of talented individuals who work to keep Wunder under control – the Ministry of Magic, if you will. Her flame-haired patron is Jupiter North, and she now lives at his Hotel, the rather unique Hotel Deucalion.
One of the many things I loved about this book was the humour. I laughed aloud in surprise throughout the book. Here, Jupiter is telling Morrigan what there is to do around Nevermoor. ‘But if you want entertainment, we’ve got the Trollossseum. You’ll love that. If you love violence. Troll fights every Saturday, centaur roller derby Tuesday nights, zombie paintball every second Friday, unicorn jousting at Christmas and a dragonriding tournament in June.’
I laughed aloud in surprise throughout the book.
Her first public appearance is at what is described as a very intense garden party – this is where she meets her fellow Wundrous Society hopefuls. She learns that there are four trials she needs to undertake, at which stage the field is narrowed: The Book Trial, The Chase Trial, The Fright Trial and The Show Trial. Every hopeful student has a knack, and they all know what it is. Here is where we are left wondering, as Morrigan is: what is her knack? We only receive one clue early on that she is even slightly talented: we find out as Morrigan does what she has up her sleeve.
Morrigan is an addictive character – you love her instantly for her slightly gothic sensibilities, her dark humour and her ability to perceive those around her sympathetically despite her place in their world. As her world opens up, and she makes her first friend, you live this new life with her, and rejoice alongside her.
Jupiter North is charismatic in a similar way to Hagrid. He is a wise and respected member of the Wundrous Society, and has never previously taken a candidate for the trials. He has secrets, but is generous with his knowledge to a point
Nevermoor has elements of the world of Harry Potter, the trials are reminiscent of Hunger Games (but less brutal), and it also has a passing resemblance to Discworld. But actually, like all good books, it builds on its genre while bringing something new. The world-building is incredibly strong. For example, Morrigan’s bedroom at the Hotel changes according to the mood of the house, shadows grow claws and chase one another around a dimly-lit room, time and space act in strange ways – but everything fits just so. There are no moments of incredulity, despite exciting and complex plots, which is a sign of a fabulously talented author. If all this isn’t enough to make you want to read it: one of the main characters in the hotel is a giant cat. And she is epic.
There are no moments of incredulity, despite exciting and complex plots, which is a sign of a fabulously talented author.
So where has Jessica Townsend been? I am so excited about this new author, and the rest of this series. This book is already taking the world by storm, and the movie rights have been snapped up. I would recommend this book to anybody who loves fantasy, no matter their age. For reading level as far as the language goes, I’d suggest 9+ with consideration that death is ever-present and it is frightening at times.
I’ll leave you with another quote that had me snorting aloud: in Nevermoor, Saint Nicholas and the Yule Queen compete for followers. Morrigan is for Saint Nick: ‘If the Yule Queen’s so great … why isn’t she in any adverts? Saint Nick’s the face of Holly Jolly Toffee, Dr Brinkley’s Holiday Fizz and Tristan Lefevre’s winter collection of cashmere bobble socks.’
Read the book if you want the answer!
By Jessica Townsend
Published by Hachette NZ
Sarah Forster has worked in the New Zealand book industry for 15 years, in roles promoting Aotearoa’s best authors and books. She has a Diploma in Publishing from Whitireia Polytechnic, and a BA (Hons) in History and Philosophy from the University of Otago. She was born in Winton, grew up in Westport, and lives in Wellington. She was a judge of the New Zealand Book Awards for Children and Young Adults in 2017. Her day job is as a Senior Communications Advisor—Content for Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington.