Nevermoor is a go-to book recommendation for readers of Dahl and/or Harry Potter, especially if they enjoy the characters, humor, magic, and a touch of the dark.
Little, Brown, orig. 2017. Paperback, 512 pages. Young Readers. Ages 8-13.
Morrigan Crow grows up believing there is something unusual about her. In the Republic, she is told that she is one of the few on the Cursed Children’s Register, doomed to die young and scapegoated for any and all calamity. In the Free States, the city of Nevermoor specifically, Jupiter North tells her something very different.
Only two people to show her any interest enter her life near the end of her life. Coincidentally, at an age where, had she been normal, would’ve made her available for recruitment to further her education: Mr. Jones, representative for Squall Industries, comes to recruit her as apprentice to the wealthy and powerful Ezra Squall, sole purveyor of Wunder. Wunder is a source of energy that powers everything in the Republic. And Jupiter North who presents her with an invitation and a contract to attempt an entrance into the Wundrous Society. The Wundrous Society is an exclusive, powerful, and influential collection of unusually gifted folk.
Jupiter North brings to mind the Doctor (from Doctor Who). He comes sweeping in before death does and smuggles her into the Free States and sets her up at his hotel in Nevermore. The Deucalion is marvelous and it is the first place we get our first real taste of the whimsical tilt to Townsend’s delightful imagination. Head of housekeeping is Fenestra, a Magnificat (a giant cat who speaks); resident party planner Frank is a vampire dwarf; and the rooms vary in charm…and sometimes just vary. Morrigan discovers that her room shifts to meet her needs, and it’s fun to watch them figure each other out.
As a member of the Wundrous Society, Jupiter North has a “knack”—an exceptional/unusual skill/ability. We learn that he is a Witness, he sees things, and he knows something about Morrigan Crow. For reasons we all have to wait to learn: Morrigan has to just trust that she has something about her that will gain her entrance into the Wundrous Society. All she has to do is pass the trials—some of which are potentially fatal, by the way.
There are two reasons Morrigan must succeed: 1) entrance in the trials and induction into the Society means protection from being deported from the Free States; 2) the Society promises to become family, something she hasn’t really had as a cursed child.
It isn’t easy for Morrigan to shrug off years of thinking she’s a curse. Nevermoor is full of the ridiculous and the strange and her patron is often called away. And her “knack” isn’t apparent to anyone, least of all herself. As with before she even knew about Nevermoor and the Wundrous Society and knacks, she is relying on what someone else believes her to be. At least being someone wanted is better than the unwanted cursed child of before. In The Trials she’ll be reminded of who she is and what she is capable of—in her own terms.
Fortunately, the only trial that requires her to use her knack is the final one: the Show Trial where everyone demonstrates their knack—and only 9 are chosen. She just has to stay in the competition and Jupiter will take care of the Show Trial—for which you hope he actually shows. You’ll wonder if Jupiter North will arrive in time, but you don’t wonder if he cares about Morrigan or believes in her.
Morrigan has others who befriend and support her in this new strange place. She makes an awesome friend in Hawthorne–a dragon rider and source of humor and mischief. As a local, he is able to help us navigate Nevermoor and its history—particularly the gory bits. Cadence promises to be another kind of ally/accomplice.
The two paths Morrigan is offered at the beginning do not disappear. Morrigan will again have to decide whether she should apprentice herself to Jupiter North or Ezra Squall. The problem isn’t that Ezra Squall is more trustworthy, it’s that he is the only one who wants to talk about her knack. Too, he seems to be the only one who knows anything about her knack—and what she might be capable of. The lesson, of course, is the one Jupiter North offers her: that she is the one who decides her fate as a Wundersmith; “You have a gift. A calling. And you get to decide what that means. Nobody else.”
The trials are pretty cool inventions. The “knacks” are a wide-range of imaginative. And Townsend also manages some brilliant characterization and serious conflict. The characters, the world building, the themes, the humor and the touch of the macabre: all reasons that Nevermoor is so satisfying. And they are all reasons to return in Wundersmith and hope for many, many more books to come.*
Recommended for readers of fantasy and adventure, of the magical and whimsical, humor and macabre. For readers of Dahl, Harry Potter, Beastly Dreadfuls. For fans of Doctor Who.
*I rarely advocate for more books in a series. I love the skill of a standalone. I appreciate duologies, and I applaud a well-plotted trilogy. I could see Townsend successfully penning a 7-book series with Morrigan Crow at the helm. And might someone get started on an anime? thanks.