Reviewed in the United Kingdom on 25 January 2019
[caveat lector: full of spoilers]
Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow (2017) is the first of a sequence of novels set in an imaginary ‘Unnamed world.’ The action begins in the town of Jackalfax in ‘Great Wolfacre’, the largest of the four states which make up the dismal ‘Wintersea Republic.’ We note the suggestive names. After four chapters it moves to the metropolitan city of Nevermoor in ‘The Free State’. Except in the prologue, the story is told entirely through the eyes of the heroine, Morrigan Crow, who at the start is approaching her 11th birthday, truly her rite of passage.
Why the heroine should bear the name of a particularly formidable Irish warrior goddess is not apparent - North prefers to call her ‘Mog’ - but she is distinctive in many other ways. First, and fundamentally: she was born at midnight on the last day of the age, and therefore under a curse (one of four ‘Cursed Children’ born that year): an imaginary curse, but one with real consequences. Her mother (we guess) died in child-bed. She grew up hated by her father and shunned by all, made a kind of universal scapegoat, blamed for all that went wrong. She remained at home, and her education was haphazard; yet, somehow, she retained her sanity and critical detachment, and even a sense of humour.
She was due to die at midnight, the moment of her 11th birthday, but at 9 pm Captain Jupiter North arrived and carried her off, despite her father’s protests, and she escaped the terrifying ‘Hunt of Smoke and Shadow,’ sent by the mysterious Ezra Squall. North took her to Nevermoor, in a different time zone - 9 hours ahead - so that Morrigan jumped over the fatal midnight hour.
Established in Nevermoor (though, significantly, an illegal immigrant), and ensconced in the Hotel Deucalion run by North, she was enrolled under his patronage in a public competition to become a member of the (elite) Wundrous Society (WunSoc), to undergo a series of demanding tests in competition with some 500 other applicants. Just nine places were on offer. In the final test (the Show Trial) she had to demonstrate a ‘knack’, a distinctive and useful skill which no other candidate possessed (such as riding on dragons or breathing underwater). But poor Morrigan had no ‘knack,’ and she knew it. To add to her worries, she was persecuted by Baz Charlton (another patron of candidates for WunSoc), who denounced her to the Stink (the police) as a ‘filthy illegal’, and was also haunted by a mysterious Mr Jones, who would be revealed at the end of the narrative as Ezra Squall, notorious as the wickedest man on earth and arch-enemy of Nevermoor.
The clue to the puzzle - but we are only at the beginning of questions and answers - lay in the cryptic syllable ‘WUN.’ ‘Wunder’ provided power, heat and light in the Republic and was supplied by Squall Industries; the ‘Wunderground’ (powered by Wunder and supposedly risk free) was one of the two transport systems in Nevermoor; ‘wunimals’ had human intelligence and powers of speech; the WunSoc collected, trained and monopolised the intellectual resources of Nevermoor. Meanwhile the Cursed Child Morrigan had been made by her birth a kind of magnet, a conduit to whom ‘wunder’ was attracted, a living force visible to North as dazzling particles of light. That seems to be the theory: we can only guess what Morrigan herself would be when the gathering was complete, but there were already signs of her power, such as ability to resist a powerful mesmerist.
The heroine – ignorant and innocent, but well-intentioned – was poised on the brink of her great adventure, the first stage of which would be completed at the end of this book. What did she hope for, what did she have to help her, and what difficulties would she encounter?
First: her aim was not power, nor revenge on father or family, or anything of that sort: it was quite simply to be part of a family, and to be loved. This was what she never enjoyed. This was why Squall’s bid to tempt her with the prospect of revenge fell hopelessly flat. This was why Morrigan was so deeply moved when North spoke of the Society as a family, and she detected the emotion behind his words. Morrigan would reflect at the very end of the book that she had gone through a lot this year, but it was for the promise of family through being in the Society, and of belonging, and friendship. But then she reflected that she also had them already. When North took her into the embrace of the hotel he did the best thing he could possibly do for her.
Second, and working through and behind this, there was her innate sense of right and wrong. When she saw another competitor – Cadence – in mortal danger in the Race Trial, she turned her steed aside to save her, putting her own success at risk. (She was deeply shocked when Cadence used the opportunity to steal her place in the race.) When she realised her candidature – above all her possible failure - was putting in peril not just North but everyone in the hotel, she decided, immediately and without hesitation, to withdraw from the trials and return to the Republic: better that than put her friends in danger. She changed her mind only when North convinced her that return was impossible: there was no home to go back to.
Third, the powerful support of friends: first came North and the community in the hotel, but almost as important was Hawthorne Swift, the dragon rider, her first friend. Hawthorne gave her his friendship immediately and totally. He saw at once that Morrigan was ‘a good sort.’ Unswerving loyalty was Hawthorne’s watchword. His strength and loyalty would help her in the Fright Trial, and his belief would give her strength all the time.
Another powerful asset was her courage, or if we prefer ‘spirit’ or ‘tenacity.’ Notice her contempt for Cadence in the Fright trial, too cautious to take a risk, and her fury when Squall said she was like him. She knew she was not, and was not tempted for a moment. Yet another asset was intelligence: she never stopped thinking or questioning, however baffling she found this new strange world.
But she had big problems. First, North had committed her to a series of trials she almost certainly could not get through, and he wasn’t always there to support her – in fact his elusiveness was a terrible worry. She knew she did not have that crucial knack, and she had repeated nightmares because of it. 2nd, she was an illegal, and one of the patrons had informed the police. The moment she failed the trials the Stink would arrest her and deport her. And just beyond the border waited the deadly Hunt of Smoke and Shadow. Worse still, she was haunted by the mysterious Mr Jones, already in touch with her before she left the Republic. Her worst suspicions were confirmed when Jones was revealed as the terrible Ezra Squall, the Wundersmith. If any hint of this connection got out, surely everyone would abandon her?
An alarming summary, but somehow, miraculously, the author manages to hide the gloom behind a screen of nonsense and banter and maintain a cheerful, even exhilarating atmosphere. North is a ‘ginger-headed abomination’ who can never be pinned down, Hawthorn is ‘a professional boofhead.’ Fenestra the gigantic cat is not just a ‘magnificat’ but a cage-fighter, and addicted to sardines. When things get tough there is laughter to follow. Whenever someone needs a bit of uplift, out come the cream cakes and sweet biscuits and sugar plums and other treats. Nevermoor itself, the big city, so much brighter than dull, uniform Jackalfax, is one succession of cheerful, colourful pageants. The author’s sunny temperament shows in so many ways: the extraordinary inventiveness, her relish for the bizarre (such as the girl with sledge-hammer hands), the impossible situations and the exuberant tour of Nevermoor which began with the terrifying invitation to step off a 13-storey block clutching an umbrella and cry ‘step boldly!’ Among other delights in the novel, we note the range of borrowings (sources include Gaiman & Miéville), the variety of vocabulary, the flexible, punning use of terms (magnificat, brolly rail), and the skill in creating character. There is so much here, and it all repays examination. Magic, we note, is a constant, yet never mentioned. Where is it all going? We do not know or care, but we sense we are in the hands of a master entertainer.
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