By Tiana Jones.
Middle-grade fiction is not just for kids, as the phenomena of Harry Potter, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and even The Hobbit demonstrate. This time it is an Australian author making waves in the world of junior fiction, with Queenslander Jessica Townsend’s debut novel Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow taking book lovers by storm throughout Australia and internationally.
The 2017 novel is in the process of being translated into a variety of languages, with the film rights already being bought by Twentieth Century Fox. Earlier this week Trials also took home the title of The Booksellers’ Book of the Year for 2018, adding to the list of awards the book has already accumulated. The novel is being picked up by children, teenagers and adults alike- and it is easy to see why with the quirky characters, engaging world-building and humour that jumps between whimsical and scathing.
As the first novel in a planned trilogy, Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crow introduces young readers to the series’ lead: the inquisitive, hilarious, and very unlucky Miss Morrigan Crow. The ten-year-old protagonist has spent her whole life cursed, with bad luck following her wherever she goes, the only person willing to spend any time with her at all being her no-nonsense grandmother.
Feared by her own town, considered to be the bane of her father’s existence and ignored by her step-mother: like all cursed children Morrigan is fated to die on Eventide until a mysterious man named Jupiter North rescues her and offers her a place in an exclusive, magical society- the catch being that Morrigan needs to compete in three dangerous trials. If Morrigan fails the trials she will be kicked out of the Wonderous society and forced to go home, where the fatal magical curse is waiting.
The city of Nevermoor is presented as a delightful mix of old and new. Trials shuns the cliché that fantasy novels must exist in a medieval type setting void of modern technology and structures, instead using the corruption of the country’s only electricity supplier as a major plot point. Modern technology and infrastructure is mixed with magic, leading to absurd and whimsical results: like a light rail train that never stops as passengers can simply jump in and out with their magical umbrellas when they reach their destination. Jessica Townsend manages to combine the quirkiness of Hogwarts with the cutting humour of A Series of Unfortunate Events through her creation of the city of Nevermoor, which mixes the charm of old London with the fire of modern New York.
The narrative runs smoothly, and the prose is accessible to the young targeted demographic but has enough bite and sophistication to make it enjoyable for older audiences. The novel is not perfect- many of the characters need to be further developed, but with so much of the first novel focused on building up the world of Nevermoor, there is room in the following novels for deeper character development. Jupiter North especially has room to grow- while wrapped in mystery in the first novel and kept on the sidelines, North has the potential to be a hugely recognisable and ionic character.
As well as being fantastical and full of charm, Trials does not shy away from contentious political and social issues either. An underlying feel of isolationism clouds Nevermoor, which the novel seems quite critical of, with Nevermoor keeping itself secret and separate to its neighbouring states caught in webs of political corruption and power shortages. Morrigan herself is an illegal alien within Nevermoor and risks deportation if her illegal status is discovered before she completes the trials- despite the fact she faces a potentially gruesome death outside of Nevermoor.
For children starting to become interested in refugee rights and the flaws in the isolationist rhetoric of the Trump, May, and Turnbull governments, the deadly plight Morrigan finds herself in may be a way of creating a discussion on the importance of not forgetting about compassion within politics- especially if you feel your children are too young to start watching the evening news. The target demographic for Nevermoor is nine and up, and so the subtle references to current political issues can be used as a starting point to introduce young audiences to important social issues.
The second novel in the series, Wundersmith: The Calling of Morrigan Crow, is set to be released on the 25th of September this year.