The Tower at Moonville
by Stephen Elboz
Recommended Ages: 10+
To be sure, they don't learn magic at the Moonville school. They don't learn much at all. Run by a lax headmaster who seems to have no time for anything but his marital and financial troubles, the school is awash in unruly boys who scratch their names into the woodwork, gamble on frog races, and stay up all night hunting in the surrounding forest. The head boy posts a lookout so that, when Mr. Bentbeef makes one of his infrequent and brief appearances, the class can appear to be learning its times-eight tables or Latin declensions (bunk, bunk-off, bunk-up, bunkum...). It's pretty much every boy for himself.
But then, Nathan Wheatear isn't supposed to be there anyway. He ran away from his verminous vermin-catcher uncle Jago Blint, along with another orphan Jago had scrobbled on his way to catch the train to school. Young Sam Halliam would rather run away to the circus than go to school, so he proposes that Nathan go instead and pretend to be him. Nathan really wants to learn, though. So while his schoolmates horse around, he borrows books from Mr. Gentleman, the astronomer who lives in the tower, and who is in fact the school's landlord. The tower becomes his haven from the chaos of the school. And while Mr. Gentleman is away at a conference, Nathan assists him by continuing to fire nightly rockets off the tower roof, in the hope of communicating with extraterrestrial beings.
But then Uncle Jago finds him, and terrorizes Nathan into joining him in a series of thefts that leaves the boy tormented in his conscience. Then comes the fateful day when his best friend at the school is accused of attempting to burgle the Bentbeefs' house, and there's nothing left for Nathan but to show great courage, to make a daring escape, and to have one climactic adventure so wild and terrifying that it leaves circus-runaway Sam envious.
This short, fast-paced novel strains at the seams with vividly drawn characters, agonizing personal conflict, touching friendship, humor and action and thrills, ending with a spectacular bang and a flourish of weirdness. It echoes the moral crisis of the best part of Oliver Twist. It has well-described settings that light up the imagination, such as a wax-works museum full of ghoulish figures. It has villains pompous, coarse, and weaselish, all three. And it has representatives of certain boys'-school character types who will remind those homesick for Hogwarts of some students there. The idea of "escaping to school" is a funny sort of fantasy, but for some reason it has proven to work again and again. This book is another fine example of it.
Among other books that Elboz wrote are two that are next in line on my to-read pile: Ghostlands and The Byzantium Bazaar. I would also recommend his somewhat more substantial young-adult novel, The Prisoner's Apprentice.