Saturday, January 25, 2020


Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow
by Jessica Townsend
Recommended Ages: 10+

Morrigan Crow is a cursed child. Born on the last day of the last year of the last 11-year age, she is destined to die on her 11th birthday. Meanwhile, everyone in the city of Jackalfax blames their bad luck, misfortunes and disasters on her. Even her family doesn't seem to care for her; they seem relieved that her time is almost up – especially her politician father, who has never shown her a calorie of warmth. Then comes Bid Day, when her father drags her along to a ceremony where grown-ups bid on children her age, offering them apprenticeships or some form of education. Some kids never get a bid; most get no more than one; now and then, a child gets two bids. To her father's horror, Morrigan gets four bids – including one from a reclusive industrialist named Ezra Squall, offering to make her the most powerful person in the world. But it's a dashing, ginger-bearded stranger named Jupiter North who swoops in on the night Morrigan is supposed to die, saves her from the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow, and whisks her off to a whole new world.

Actually, the city of Nevermoor is just another part of Morrigan's weird, Wunderful world – the main city of the Free States, where people from her native Republic are not generally allowed. Jupiter, a member of the League of Explorers and owner of the magical Deucalion Hotel, tells Morrigan she isn't cursed. Instead, he says, she has some kind of "knack" – somewhere between a mad talent and a magical gift. He wants to sponsor her application to the Wunder Society – Wunsoc for short – an elite group devoted to protecting the Free States from various threats, and whose initiates are trained at a special school. Hundreds of kids her age apply every year, but only nine are accepted. To make the cut, Morrigan simply has to make it through four grueling trials and prove that she has a knack that is useful and good. Only, other than the curse (whose existence she still believes on a deep level), Morrigan doesn't think she has a knack; and whenever she counts on him for help, Jupiter disappears on some mission of great importance.

Clearly, there is a crisis brewing in the marvelous city of Nevermoor. Something is amiss with the Wunder – the invisible stuff that powers all the magic and technology in the world. Accidents are happening in the Wunderground (a subway powered by magic). Guests and repairmen at the Deucalion keep complaining about a ghost that walks through walls. Morrigan and her slowly growing circle of friends gradually realize that the real threat behind the scenes is Ezra Squall, the city's last Wundersmith, who was banished 100 years ago after committing monstrous acts. Squall wants something from Morrigan – perhaps a way back into Nevermoor – while she just manages to hang on through one trial after another and elude attempts by the Stink (the city's police force) to arrest her as an illegal alien and deport her back to Jackalfax and her doom.

Morrigan's world is full of quirks, horrors and delights. Her year-long quest to be accepted into Wunsoc brings her in contact with some strange creatures and colorful people – from a giant, talking cat to a boy who wears an eye patch to avoid seeing too much. She makes friends with a mischievous young dragon rider. She makes frenemies with a mesmerist whom no one else can seem to remember, even moments after meeting her. She makes flat out enemies, too, in the competition to qualify as a Wunsoc initiate. Then there are the residents in the hotel, including an opera singer whose voice charms small animals, a dwarf vampire (pardon, actually a vampire dwarf), and the Deucalion itself, which behaves like a living thing. The heroine confronts bullying, cheating, superstition, scapegoating and prejudice. Her attitude toward all this – a unique blend of enthusiastic acceptance and dry sarcasm – adds to the fun.

But running right through the whole "if your application to Hogwarts involved a super-competitive, year-long series of tests and practical demonstrations" concept is a Voldemort-like menace, a villain so vile that it's risky to speak his name in public. Squall means to use Morrigan as a pawn in his comeback plan, and what this teaches her about herself fuels her niggling doubts and her underlying loneliness. This thread holds the otherwise somewhat episodic plot together like pieces of popcorn and cranberries strung on a fishing line – which reminds me: They have Christmas in Nevermoor, Saint Nick and his flying reindeer and all. Whatever the Wundersmith has in mind adds a layer of thriller-chiller to an otherwise mostly lighthearted series of magical adventures ranging across a vibrant cityscape that will come to life inside an imaginative reader's head.

What happens if and when Morrigan makes it into the Wunsoc training program is another story – or rather, a whole series of them. This debut novel by an Australian author is the first book of the Nevermoor or Morrigan Crow series. Book 2 is Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow, and Book 3, Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow, is due to be released in August 2020.

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