Nevermoor: The trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor #1) by Jessica Townsend

In books you have this very specific genre called ‘middle school’, and I’m never really that fond of it. It’s often very, as the name suggests, ‘in between’: it’s either too childish or simply trying to hard to be exciting. Or so I thought. This book changed my mind. It’s an absolute rollercoaster of events and emotions washed over me as I read this, flipping through the pages as quickly as I possibly could. And I can now proudly say: This is a fantastic book, for middle school-ers and university students alike!

Morrigan Crow was born on Eventide, which means she will die when she is twelve years old. It also means she is a ‘cursed child’ and she’s constantly having to apologise for everything that goes wrong in the dreary town she is born in. Her family doesn’t provide much comfort either, because they simply dislike her and ignore her most of the time. Everyone seems to be looking forward to the day she dies and Morrigan doesn’t know any differently. But when it’s bid-day, a day where adults can bid on children to further finance their education, Morrigan receives four bids. Don’t they know that she won’t live another year?

Her father says it’s all just a cruel joke and the glimmer of hope Morrigan had for a second is crushed. But when a mysterious ginger man called Jupiter North appears, with the promise to take her away from her old life, she doesn’t hesitate. As they climb through the clock on the old bell tower, they cheat death through the time difference and Morrigan gets a second chance at life in the wonderful city of Nevermoor. Nevermoor lies in the Free State and is either a magical city where the unexpected is ordinary or the most dangerous and ridiculous city, depending on who you ask. Jupiter North runs a hotel there and he fits right into that crazy and impulsive world. His choice in Morrigan seems everything but impulsive though, but because of his erratic temper and hectic lifestyle he tells her very little of what is going on and what will happen next.

He does tell her of the ‘Wundrous society’: a secret organisation that he would like for Morrigan to join, just like him, and that’s why he did bid on her. Except you have to get through four trials in order to enter: one to test your honesty, one to test your determination, one to test your bravery and the last one, the Show Trial, where you will be presenting your ‘knack’ for the judges. Morrigan is sceptical at first, to say the least, because the only knack she can think of is being cursed. But when she hears the promise of life-long friends and a family to all who succeed in joining the society, she is determined to get in. The problem is, Jupiter refuses to tell her what her knack is, up to the very last minute. And then there’s the mystery of Ezra Squall, who has also bid on Morrigan, and the fear people seem to have for his mere name. Morrigan no longer has a choice though, because she is in Nevermoor illegaly, so she has to pass all the trials, or face her death in her old world.

As I mentioned before, this book is very much like a whirlwind that takes you along for the ride. You might have many questions after reading the summary, but so did I when reading the book and many are still left unanswered. But this style of writing serves a wonderful purpose: we feel like Morrigan feels. She’s constantly overwhelmed, scared of having to go back and face her death, unsure of her future and incredibly annoyed by all the adults refusing to answer her questions. Strangely enough, the not knowing didn’t annoy me much. There are so many things that happen in this book that make you think ‘that’s insane!’ at first, but it doesn’t feel like a plot hole, just as part of the world Townsend has created. For example: Morrigan escapes her death at midnight through a time difference? What? But it works, and on the next page there are even stranger things happening, so as a reader you just go with the flow, as Morrigan must. This was probably my favourite aspect of the writing: it is constantly fast-paced, exciting, a little scary and changing all the time. There’s something similar to the London Underground in Nevermoor, where you have to jump on and off trains by literally jumping with an umbrella into nothing, hooking your umbrella onto a rail and being swept on by the train with insane speed. That’s what this book feels like.

Quite often, the characters really make the book and it’s the same here. Jupiter North is erratic, but loving. Fenestra is a Magnificat, (yes, a cat) who works at the hotel and comforts Morrigan on the rare occasion, but mostly scolds her. Hawthorne is a mischievous dragon-rider and the first of Morrigan’s life-long friends, after they drop a pudding on a snobby girl’s head together. The characters, so many more than I just mentioned, are lovely, but Morrigan is my favourite. Morrigan Crow is a wonderful character, because she is just so life-like. One of the main characteristics that make her so, is the fact that she is almost always annoyed and scowling. Admirably, she battles on and tries to do what is best in her eyes, but the uncertainty of it all makes her grumpy most of the time. I would be grumpy too if I were taken away and no one really bothered to explain to me what is going on. But, Morrigan is a true warrior: she shows honesty, vulnerability, determination, inventiveness and daring, in the trials for the Wundrous Society and in life in general. Maybe it’s because she’s always known she is going to die, maybe it’s just who she is, but she has no problems with staring fear straight in the face. I really admired that in her.

There’s also the theme of making friends and of what is truly important in a person. At first, Morrigan is extremely self-conscious, because all she’s ever known in that she is cursed. Being neglected by her family didn’t help either. And meeting the other candidates of the prestigious Wundrous Society only makes it worse, because many are beautiful girls, witty and outgoing, and talented in their own special way. They bully her from the start and Morrigan doesn’t even know if she has a knack at all! But then Jupiter explains how the Show Trial is given the most attention, but it is also the last trial for a reason. The society isn’t interested in children who are just talented, that’s why they test your honesty, determination and bravery first. So, it’s great being pretty and a great singer, but when you don’t have a strong character, you will never even get the chance to showcase your amazing talent. Many of those snobby girls don’t make it that far, and those that do turn out to have unexpected sides to them. This is great message: be a good person first, talent comes second.

One of the main questions that remains unanswered is that of the Wundrous Society. We know this world runs on energy called ‘Wunder’ and the society probably has something to do with it. Jupiter North is a member, as are all the great and strange people of Nevermoor. Their talents range from opera-singing to dragon-riding, with the talents of mesmerising and invisibility in between. Then there’s the monster called the ‘Wundersmith’, the stuff of nightmares. I’m not willing to give away too much, but in the end we do know that Morrigan has some kind of gift involving ‘Wunder’, Ezra Squall and the dreaded ‘Wundersmith’. But that’s all we really know of all things ‘Wunder’. Long story short, I can’t wait to read the next book, because Morrigan needs answers!
And so do I.

Expect the unexpected Award: in genre of books, in little cursed girls and in every world you end up in!

Jessica Townsend, Nevermoor: the trials of Morrigan Crow (Nevermoor #1) (New York City, 2017)

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Thura Nightingale

The Bear and the Nightingale (Winternight Trilogy #1) by Katherine Arden

I got this book from Thura when I left the Netherlands for Kenya. Which is ironic because this story is set in deep winter Russia and narrates about terrible winters and frosts without end. In Kenya, it was hot most of the time. It helps though, to read a book about ice in a hot country to cool down – I just imagined myself in this winter tale and I felt cold again. Now that I am back in the Netherlands and I am colder than ever, I’m missing the warmth of the country where I read this book. It seems fitting to write the review of this book in the cold here in the Netherlands. This book is the first part of a trilogy, but The Bear and the Nightingale stands on its own as well.

The setting of this book is some kind of fantastical medieval winter at the edge of the wilderness in Russia. It is set in a village and in this place, winter lasts most of the year. The households of the people are protected by spirits which are appeased by offerings of food. Also, people are devout Christians. There is a danger lurking in the forests which grows in the winter. This danger has the shape of Medved, or the Bear, who is the winter demon. He feeds off the fear of people to strengthen him to release himself from his shackles to spread death and destruction everywhere. Only the spirits can protect the people from Medved.

This story starts when Marina announces she is pregnant to her husband Pyotr in the midst of winter. Pyotr fears for her life because Marina has grown weak and might not survive the pregnancy. Marina tells Pyotr to take care of the daughter she is carrying because this one will carry the magical abilities inherent in her family connected to the spirits. And indeed, when Vasya is born Marina dies. Contrary to her calm sister Olga, Vasya grows up to be a spirited little girl always running around in the forest and with the horses. Her father and wet-nurse, Dunya, have great difficulty containing her and raising her as all girls are raised: to be a wife or for the convent. Vasya has too much a mind of her own to settle for those expectations.

A big part of her struggle in the book is to find a way to break from those expectations and to find a life of her own. Part of Vasya’s magical gifts is that she can see the household spirits. Examples of those are the Dvorovoi, who is the spirit of the stables and with whom she forms a friendship, and the Domovoy, who protects the household. However, they can only protect when they get offerings of food. There are good spirits who protect the household, but there are also more maleficent ones who kill.

Life goes on for years in peace until one day Pyotr decides he must find a new wife, so his children have a mother. That wife is Anna, a very pious but troubled woman. She sees the spirts as well, but thinks they are demons. From the moment of her arrival in Pyotr’s household, she and Vasya don’t see eye to eye. Things escalate when Konstantin, an ambitious priest, arrives. In the village of Pyotr’s family and starts a campaign against the spirits whom he believes to be demons. The tool he uses for that is fear where he blames the spirits for everything that goes wrong in the village. This is a dangerous exploit though because the people have been making offerings to the spirits for generations, which has kept them safe from Medved in the woods. Vasya is the only one who keeps offering because they are her friends. Because of the neglect of the villagers, the spirits get ill and weak and cannot protect the people anymore.

Vasya has a difficult role in this story and the village, and will also be an inspiration to all the women who have ever felt they cannot be themselves. I personally also really loved her because of that. Vasya is the only one who can help the spirits, however, it is also dangerous for her to show that power because of people’s fear. At one point she is even pursued as a witch. Also, as a woman, people expect her to stay at home and take care of the household and not to ride horses and run around in the woods. Vasya does not settle for the idea to either become a wife or nun. I will illustrate her thoughts by one of Vasya’s quotes:

“All my life,” she said, “I have been told ‘go’ and ‘come.’ I am told how I will live, and I am told how I must die. I must be a man’s servant and a mare for his pleasure, or I must hide myself behind walls and surrender my flesh to a cold, silent god. I would walk into the jaws of hell itself, if it were a path of my own choosing. I would rather die tomorrow in the forest than live a hundred years of the life appointed me.”

This urge for freedom also explains her bond with horses which has a key role in the book. Horses are often associated with a sense of freedom, but they are also controlled by their owner. Maybe the horses and Vasya recognize each other’s struggle to be free, but also the fear where that freedom will take them. Can you be happy if your freedom alienates you from everyone who ever cared for you?  Is there a way for Vasya to be free and happy? Eventually, she has to choose freedom to save everyone she ever cared for. I am really looking forward to part two, The Girl in the Tower, to see where this decision will take her.

The biggest critique I have on this book is on the writing style. It’s told like a story you’ve already heard a lot of times, and thus not everything is explained. This gives the book a feeling of familiarity like your grandmother or great friend is narrating it. However, it also makes the book at times difficult to follow because I did not get what was going on. It took me about two months before I got into the book and after that, I could not put it away anymore. The thing Arden did really well is the whole atmosphere of the book which is one of magic and a sense of potential danger lurking behind every corner or tree. The atmosphere is written so well that I found myself wishing with the whole household winter would end soon. It is interesting Katherine Arden managed to write such a dark winter atmosphere because she went to Hawaii for six months to write this book.

All things said, I really recommend this book to everyone who loves stories with a mysterious setting where you’re never sure what’s going to happen and where the danger will come from. Is the biggest danger the evil spirit that lurks in the woods or does the greatest danger come from the people in your own village who are closest to you? But besides a scary story, this is also a beautiful story about a woman who tries to find her own path in this world and succeeds. Maybe not to find ultimate happiness, but for freedom and sometimes that is even better.

Breaking the shackles award for breaking the bonds of people’s expectations  

 

Katherine Arden, The Bear and the Nightingale (New York, 2017)

Bella bookworms 2

Bella G. Bear

The Signalman: A Ghost Story by Charles Dickens

When on our trip to London, the bookshops were still full of Christmas books, even though it was January. They hadn’t lost their appeal though. I always find that books that fall in the Christmas category are very fitting for days when the weather is terrible and your house full of candlelight. So I bought this booklet and as it has been storming here for days, now seems as good a time as ever to review it. Although its title is The Signalman, that’s actually only one of the three parts this book consists of. The first is a wonderful introduction about Dickens’ later life, the second the title story, and the third a comedy that takes place in the same fictional place as The Signalman. If you want to know more about that last one you can always ask me (or just read it, it’s only twenty pages) but for this review I will limit myself to the ghost story and its origin.

A nameless narrator tells us how he once visited a signalman beside the railroad. The man’s cabin had caught his intention. It looked so lonely that it made the narrator curious as to who would spend their long hours there day after day. The signalman’s post is next to a tunnel, where he must keep in contact with the other railway workers via telegraph, man the track changes and signal the train operators with a light, a flag or by waving and shouting. It’s a job that carries a lot of responsibility, asks for continuous vigilance and could (and did) go wrong in a thousand ways.

This signalman’s frayed nerves, however, have to endure something more, as he tells our narrator. Some kind of vision has been warning him in the past. Every time he sees it, something terrible happens on the tracks not long afterwards. There has been a train crash and the death of a young lady traveler and now, the signalman says, the vision has returned. Not knowing where the danger lies, he can do nothing to prevent it. The narrator is intrigued by the signalman’s story, but rather skeptical. However, soon something happens that makes him question his disbelief. A spooky detail in the ending elevates the story from good to great.

Charles Dickens is exceptionally good at writing characters and creating an atmosphere. Because this is a short story and we don’t have time to get to know the characters very well, a lot comes down to atmosphere. It doesn’t disappoint. In the description of the bleak, damp railway post, the glaring red light at the mouth of the tunnel, the gruff cadence of the signalman’s words, the story almost exclusively consists of a wary feeling. You know that feeling, when it’s dark and raining and you’re waiting for the train and realise how easy it is to fall on the tracks? Something like that, but darker. Apparently, it’s not a coincidence that Dickens chose to write about trains in a horror story. He had lived through an actual horror story himself.

Historian Simon Bradley (author of The Railways: Nation, Network and People, which I now want to read as well) has written an introduction to this story. His essay explains a lot about how The Signalman came to be. Bradley tells how Dickens used the then fairly new train network often, for his reading tours all over the country, for travelling between London and his house in Kent and to see his mistress. Since 1858, Dickens and his wife had been legally separated and he was seeing a young woman called Nelly Ternan. He had provided a house for her and her mother in the north of France, to stay discreet, and visited by train and steamship.

On 9 June 1865, he travelled with Nelly and her mother through Kent when a repairman’s mistake caused the express train to steam right over a bridge from which the tracks were removed. Dickens’ carriage was held in place because it was directly behind the locomotive, but the rest of the train fell off the bridge and into the valley. Ten people died and many were wounded. Dickens tried to help, using brandy and his hat, filled with river water, to treat the wounded. He worked some hours between dazed and dying people and the experience had a profound impact on him. Although it’s always tricky to diagnose a historical person retroactively, if he had lived today we would probably say he had post-traumatic stress disorder. The Victorians just noticed that he was more nervous afterwards, especially when he had to travel by train, sometimes suffering from flashbacks.

Trains, then, played a big role in Dickens’ later life. They were the modern invention that brought him swiftly to anywhere he wanted to be, a marvel of innovation. They were also full of accidents and traumatic memories and on top of that a feature that drastically changed the English landscape. No wonder he was fascinated by them. One and a half years after the accident, he published a group of stories in his weekly magazine All the Year Round. The title was ‘Mugby Junction’, the fictional railway station where the stories take place. One of these stories is The Signalman, another is called The Boy at Mugby, a hilarious satire of British railway restrooms, also included in the booklet I bought. My copy has only 52 pages in total and fits in a coat pocket. This makes it, ironically, rather perfect for public transport. Let’s hope Charles Dickens hasn’t put you off trains forever.

Lumière Brothers Award for providing us with a glimpse of what railway transport was like before radio communication

Charles Dickens, The Signalman: A Ghost Story (originally London, 1866 but in this form London, 2015)

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Jo Robin

Princess Princess Ever After by Katie O’Neill

A lot has changed in the world in the last couple of decades: some things good, others bad. For example, when I was a little girl, about fifteen years ago, there were hardly any books or films around with female characters loving other females. And that’s just the lesbian representation, don’t even get me started on bisexual representation. This made me feel lonely and isolated. I lived for and through books and the lack of characters that were like me hurt me. Especially, it made me feel like there was something wrong with me, because I found my validations in books because of the lack of adult guidance in my life. So, you can only imagine the joy I felt when I found this little book: an LGBTQ+ fairytale for young children. The child in me jumped for joy and, to be fair, so did I in the bookshop. This book is so funny, sweet and one princess falling for another princess is just normal here! I cannot wait to read this books to my now still non-existent children.

The fairytale starts off with a princess in the tower, like every good fairytale does. Princess Sadie has been there for a while apparently, because when another rescuer appears she is quite sceptical. But Princess Amira is different from all the other saviours, because, first off, she is a woman and, secondly, she comes armed with a grappling hook. It doesn’t all go according to plan, because the tower has to be knocked down by a unicorn named Celeste with a special fondness for cookies. But Princess Sadie and her dragon are rescued from the tower.

But that’s not where the story ends. As it turns out, Princess Sadie used to prefer the tower to being rescued and that’s why she has sabotaged the princes who came to her rescue. But she trusts Princess Amira and did want to go with her. On their way, they rescue a prince, who doesn’t think he needs rescuing by the way, and he tells the two princesses of an ogre, terrorising the village. Princess Amira, as the hero she is, decides to help, but eventually it is Princess Sadie who saves the day by teaching the ogre how to dance without destroying things.

Unfortunately, that’s when a big black monster attacks Princess Amira and he takes her away. Princess Sadie soon figures out that behind all this is her sister, a mean and jealous queen, who was the one who locked Princess Sadie in the tower. But, as expected, her sister just turns out to be jealous of Sadie, because the people love her just the way she is. Eventually, Princess Sadie’s ‘big boned’ dragon saves the day and the evil sister is turned into a pig. Sadie then becomes queen and the story ends with a royal wedding, with now Queen Amira telling Queen Sadie how much she admires her and how there are different kinds of courage, as well as heroes!

One of the great things about this book is that it touches on social and current issues in a humoristic manner along the way. In this way, it’s not only a fairytale, but awareness is spread about problems as well. One example is the fact that Princess Sadie is, just like her dragon, ‘big boned’, as she puts it. Her mean sister often calls her fat and you can see in the flashbacks that this has damaged her self-esteem quite a bit. At one point her sister calls her ‘a fat, silly crybaby’ and Princess Sadie speaks the wonderful words: ‘That may be true… but I’ll never let you make me feel like it’s a bad thing ever again!!’ Another is the mention that parental pressure can be extremely crippling, something that both Princess Amira and Princess Sadie have experienced. Lastly, one of my favourites, gender roles are being broken down, when Princess Amira tells of her desire to be a hero and when the prince they meet confesses that he actually doesn’t want to be brave all the time, but feels the pressure to do so anyways. All of these are not heavily accentuated, just mentioned casually throughout. This works really well in my opinion, because it’s still first and foremost a fairytale, but O’Neill still takes the time to mention some of these subjects and problems that many can relate to.

Katie O’Neill is an illustrator from New Zealand and this book is a graphic novel. Usually on this site, Bella is the one who reviews graphic novels, but I do read them on occasion. I’m always very much aware that the artwork is the most important thing in this genre and the story comes second, or, better said, they are so interwoven that you can’t really separate them. So, let me show you some examples of what I mentioned before through the artwork.
Firstly, the first time we meet princess Amira, who is an absolutely badass hero, a woman of colour and has, as O’Neill aptly puts it, ‘kick-butt’ hair.

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Secondly, the expressions of the characters are wonderfully done, the story is often very funny, but some of the drawings are really gorgeous as well.

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And lastly, seeing the love grow between Princess Amira and Princess Sadie is adorable and you can really see it on their faces throughout the story.

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I found this little book in a wonderful bookshop in London called ‘Gay’s the Word’ and I’ve written a post here, where I explain a bit more about this magical place. I was very happy to find this book, because I fell in love at once. It’s just amazing to have a fairytale with people in it like me! And I’m sure many more will feel like this, because I remember very much what it was like growing up with very little representation. I would absolutely love for books like these to become normal and available everywhere. Now we are still in the situation that we have to teach our children about LGBTQ+ culture, but imagine a world where they simply know about it because heterosexuality isn’t the norm any longer. Imagine children being read books like this one and just knowing from the start that women can be with women, and that they can be tough and are also allowed to cry, and they’ll no longer have to worry that something is wrong with them. I can’t wait until the time that this book is no longer a LGBTQ+ fairytale, but just a fairytale, one on the shelf of every bookshop with many, many others.

A Brighter World Award: for normalising LGBTQ+ relationships in all books and creating a world where all children can identify with the books they read

Katie O’Neill, Princess Princess Ever After (Portland, 2016)

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Thura Nightingale