Monday, January 27, 2020


Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow
by Jessica Townsend
Recommended Ages: 10+

This tale of a special school, with courses of study for kids with both mundane (non-magical) and arcane (magical) talents or "knacks," immediately begs comparison with all the other magical schools I've read books about. After all, my online book-boosting career was largely inspired by the question "What should I read next after wearing out J.K. Rowling's books about Hogwarts?" I've tallied up at least least 15 different books or book series featuring something like a school for witchcraft and wizardry,1 plus several other training programs for fantasy careers.2 While we're answering questions, Question 2 would be "Why would you want to read more books like this?" That answer is easy: Because they're often very good, and we love them. Question 3: "But surely, there has to be something that sets this particular school of magic apart from the rest?" Answer: That's why I'm reviewing it, dummy.

This is the sequel to Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow. A third book in the series, titled Hollowpox: The Hunt for Morrigan Crow, is scheduled for release in August 2020. Previously, we followed the adventures of an 11-year-old girl named (like, duh) Morrigan Crow as she escaped certain doom in her native Wintersea Republic and became a permanent guest of the sentient Deucalion Hotel, in the Free States city of Nevermoor. Never heard of the Free States? Neither had Morrigan until then. Now, instead of being regarded as a cursed child and blamed for everything that goes wrong, she has made the cut to be accepted in the very exclusive training academy for the Wunder Society. The other eight members of Unit 919 (as her class is designated) are supposed to be her brothers and sisters, loyal companions for life. The school is supposed to prepare her to use her knack for the betterment of Wunsoc, Nevermoor and the Free States. But in her first year at the school, none of these promises are made good.

I spent a lot of time, while reading this book, feeling angry on Morrigan's behalf. It really sizzled my sardine to see her shunned by her classmates (with one or two exceptions), banned from studying the interesting subjects everyone else was taking and, instead, allowed to take only one or two classes – one of which was basically designed to put her down and keep her down. The reason for all this is that, instead of a knack like the other kids (such as cookery or martial arts or dragon riding), Morrigan has the ability to summon Wunder itself – that invisible stuff that powers all the magic and technology in her world. She is a Wundersmith, and according to the reptilian Prof. Onstald, Wundersmiths are capable only of "missteps, blunders, fiascos, monstrosities and devastations."

Once again, Morrigan is deprived of the support of her guardian and sponsor, explorer and hotelier Jupiter North, for most of the year while she is bullied by older students, blackmailed by someone unknown, browbeaten by Onstald, lied to and lied about, and mostly deprived of the education and the sense of belonging Wunsoc promised her when she joined. Even in the course of an eventful year full of strange and dangerous adventures, puzzles, spectacles and singularities (two other things Wundersmiths prove capable of), Year 1 at the Wunsoc school is kind of a downer. Also, she finds herself in grave danger, experiences betrayal, and comes face-to-face once more with the previous Wundersmith, Ezra Squall, who is bad enough to give them all a bad name and who now seems perilously close to returning to full power.

Nevertheless, Morrigan's second adventure is one well worth following. Her world is strange and new, full of beautiful magic and disturbing horrors. Her school includes a fascinating mix of both, including a two-faced Study Mistress whose transition from Murgatroyd (mistress of arcane studies) to Dearborn (mistress of the mundane) is perhaps the most chilling touch throughout the book. Morrigan also enjoys the warm friendship and full acceptance by a number of people, which helps make it all worthwhile. At times, their antics cracked me up – I mean into loud laughter. Her climactic encounter with the enemy is really spectacular. And although the reason her first year was such a living hell ultimately proves to be part of something bigger, the lingering resentment I felt at the end of the book is a sign that (a) Morrigan Crow is a better person than I am, and (b) I really care about her. So I expect to see her again.

1I'm thinking of the following series (in quotes) and individual books (in italics): Academ's Fury by Jim Butcher; The Wizard Heir by Cinda Williams Chima; "Young Wizards" by Diane Duane; "The Magickers" by Emily Drake; "Finishing School" by Gail Carriger; "Magisterium" by Holly Black and Cassandra Clare; The Magicians by Lev Grossman; A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin; "The Tapestry" by Henry H. Neff; "Children of the Red King" by Jenny Nimmo; selected "Discworld" titles by Terry Pratchett; "Scholarly Magics" by Caroline Stevermer; "Arucadi" by E. Rose Sabin; "Septimus Heap" by Angie Sage; "Ashtown Burials" by N.D. Wilson.

2Examples include Pennyroyal Academy by M.A. Larson; Princess Academy by Shannon Hale; School for Sidekicks by Kelly McCullough; Sidekicked by John David Anderson; Munchem Academy by Commander S.T. Bolivar III; Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner; Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks; The School of Fear and The League of Unexceptional Children by Gitty Daneshvari; and arguably (though I haven't read them) Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead and The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani.

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