Reviewed by Wendy Lipke
Nevermoor author Jessica Townsend moves into JK Rowling territory was the title of an article in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 2017. This came just after the release of her first book Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow.
This was the first of a planned three books in a magical series for children aged between eight and twelve. I have now read the first two books in this series and found them exciting even for my advanced age. My grandchildren are older than the audience for which these books were written but I still found myself engaged with Nevermoor’s feisty heroine.
Jessica Townsend grew up on the Sunshine Coast in Queensland and moved to London to broaden her horizons as she worked on this project. Her first book, which she began the year she left high school, took ten years before it was published and incorporated her fascinations for public transport, ancient cities, hotels, Halloween, secret societies and gigantic cats. The Brolly Rail and Courage Square of the Free State, an alternative London, are affectionate nods to the Tube and Trafalgar Square.
Many major publishing houses vied for the English-language rights to the first book with foreign language rights quickly following. In advance of the release of this first book, Hachette Australia announced that Nevermoor was to be the “biggest Australian publishing story in a decade, perhaps longer”, comparing Townsend’s international reach to Man Booker Prize winner Richard Flanagan, Tim Winton, Graeme Simsion and Liane Moriarty.
This remains to be seen, however in 2017 and 2018, the first book of the series, has won several major awards. Among these have been the 2018 ABIA for Book of the Year, Book of the Year for Younger Readers and Matt Richell Award for New Writer of the Year; the Indie Book Awards of the Year and Children’s Category; the 2017 Aurealis Award for Best Children’s Fiction; the 2018 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize for Younger Fiction and it was named a CBCA notable book.
In Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow, we are introduced to an eleven year old girl who is not accepted by her family or the surrounding society. Born on an unlucky day, she is blamed for all local misfortunes, from hailstorms to heart attacks – and, worst of all, the curse means that Morrigan is doomed to die at midnight on Eventide.
Fortunately for Morrigan she is rescued by a strange and remarkable man named Jupiter North who whisks her away into the safety of a secret, magical city called Nevermoor.
It’s here that Morrigan discovers Jupiter has chosen her to contend for a place in the city’s most prestigious organisation: the Wundrous Society. In order to join, she must compete in four difficult and dangerous trials against hundreds of other children, each boasting an extraordinary talent that sets them apart. Morrigan does not have any apparent special talent but against all odds, she completes the trials and receives a place in the society.
The second book, WundeRSmith – The Calling of Morrigan Crow, is about the new recruits, of the Wundrous Society, Unit 919. Each has had to pledge lifelong loyalty to each other. On their first day, they assembled at a railway station which appeared to be dedicated just for them. Here they were greeted by a Miss Cheery who was to be their conductor or guide to help them navigate their Wunsoc education for the next five years. She called out the names of each of the group with their special talent which included mesmerist, gastronomist, linguist, healer, fighter, dragonrider, pickpocket and wundersmith. Unfortunately this talent attached to Morrigan Crow’s name, caused people to shy away from her in fear and so it was to remain a secret within the group – ‘If anyone- anyone at all- is found to have broken our trust… then all 9 of you (unit 919) will face expulsion from Wunsoc. For life’ (151).
While others are allotted a range of studies Morrigan has just one – ‘History of Heinous Wundrous Acts with Professor Hemingway Q. Onstald, who was ‘more human than tortoise but still a lot of tortoise’ (104). This course seemed to be about how horrible the Wundersmiths have been throughout history. Later she was allowed to attend the ‘Decoding Nevermoor class’ with Henry Mildway. Here they were to learn about the Tricksy Lanes or little alleys or walkways in Nevermoor that transform in some way, once you’re inside them. These were graded according to how dangerous they were.
To make matters worse people are beginning to disappear and someone is trying to blackmail unit 919. Although Unit 919 is bound by their pledge Morrigan still feels isolated except for her friend dragonrider, Hawthorne. At one stage when Hawthorne had to remind others in their unit, ‘we’re supposed to be a FAMILY’ he was told ‘I never asked to have a WUNDERSMITH in my family!’(161).
The only place she really feels accepted is the Hotel Deucalion where she lives with Jupiter North and an array of strange characters.
Throughout this book all the members of unit 919 are tested and none more so than Morrigan who is just beginning to find her talent, thanks in part to Ezra Squall, “the exiled, evillest man who ever lived and only other living Wundersmith” (36). He commands the Hunt of Smoke and Shadow, his own ghoulish, fiery-eyed army of hunters, horses and hounds. Many adventures are undertaken and Unit 919 play an integral part in solving the puzzle of the continuing disappearances.
This series is a wonderful read for all ages and I look forward to continuing my adventures with Morrigan watching she overcomes all the obstacles thrown in her way while growing into the powers she has been given.
By Jessica Townsend