Okay, I know I said next post was going back to Kvothetown. Unfortunately, I'm having an extremely hard time sitting down and reading anything at the moment (due to Brain Issues), so instead here's a review of something I read last year, but never got around to reviewing (also due to Brain Issues).
The Kvothe posts are coming guys, I swear. For now, please enjoy this detour into a middle grade novel that was almost really, really good.
Nevermoor begins with the titular Morrigan Crow waiting to die. As a registered Cursed Child, she's doomed to pass away on the night of her eleventh birthday. No one's going to miss her very much, because she causes havoc and misfortune just by existing; even her ambitious politician father and his new wife can barely muster up the enthusiasm to arrange her funeral.
But when the fateful day arrives, Morrigan doesn't die. Instead, an eccentric man named Jupiter North waltzes into her house and spirits her off to Nevermoor, a secret city-state where magic is far more commonplace than in Morrigan's low-fantasy world. Jupiter is a member of the prestigious Wundrous Society, a guild of explorers, adventurers and inventors, and he wants to sponsor Morrigan to be its newest member.
To join, she has to pass four dangerous trials. If she succeeds, she'll have a home for life. If she fails, she gets booted out of Nevermoor, where the curse--in the form of a pack of ghostly riders and their shadowy wolf companions--is still waiting for her.
Right off the bat, you could--and someone in this book's journey from hard drive to bookshelf probably did--describe Nevermoor solely in terms of other things it vaguely resembles. Harry Potter meets The Hunger Games with a generous helping of Narnia is probably the first comparison that comes to mind. That would mostly be unfair though, because the book actually establishes its own voice and identity in a way that recent middle grade fantasy sometimes struggles to do. This is mostly going to be an explanation of why Nevermoor ultimately didn't work for me, but I want to start off with the parts I liked.
The book manages a very deft tightrope walk when it comes to tone, which is best exemplified by the opening chapters. Morrigan's impending death is mostly played for laughs, with the sheer callous disregard of her family quickly flying past any actual pathos and going straight into over the top absurdity; but at the same time, Morrigan's lonely existence as a source of constant disaster manages to illicit genuine sympathy, and when Jupiter comes and rescues her (in a giant mechanical spider), you really do feel glad for the poor kid. The rest of the book mostly keeps this balance intact, and it's a real asset to the story as a whole.
Another thing I liked was the world-building, or rather the way the book doesn't really do any. The setting is actually kind of confusing in its complexity: Morrigan's home is already a fantasy world with magic and the supernatural, but then Nevermoor is orders of magnitude more fantastical again, and there's implied to be multiple other parallel dimensions whose relation to each other is never made explicitly clear.
In an adult fantasy novel, this would all get over-explained to high hell and you'd have to dig nuggets of actual plot out from hundreds of pages of dull world-building. One of the unsung advantages of middle grade fiction is that you can't do that, because kids won't put up with it, so Nevermoor just trusts that the reader will figure out the important details and isn't afraid to straight up leave things unexplained if they're not vital to the story. This has the effect of making the book's world seem wide-open and ripe for exploration; in particular, the details we get about Morrigan's home-world make it sound pretty fascinating.
But Nevermoor's crown jewel is the relationship between Morrigan and Jupiter. At first glance, he seems like the solution to all of the problems in her life: part mentor, part father figure and part cool older brother, he provides the support, affection and unconditional love that's been entirely absent up until this point. But then it becomes apparent that he's hiding things from her. And he keeps disappearing to tackle Nevermoorian emergencies when she needs him most. And he goes back on his word or otherwise lets her down in small ways.
All of this creates a terrific tension, both in Morrigan and the audience, over what exactly this guy's deal is and whether he really has Morrigan's best interests in mind. The book keeps that tension building all the way to the final trial, where Morrigan has to demonstrate a supernatural ability that she doesn't actually seem to have; from day one, Jupiter tells her that he'll take care of it when the time comes, but he's disappointed her so much already that you really feel like he might just leave her out to dry.
Had the book been smaller on scope and focused entirely around the dynamic between these two characters, I'd have given it a five-star recommendation without hesitation. Unfortunately, there's a whole lot more to the story--this is a fairly long novel by middle grade standards, clearly intended to set up a big ongoing series--and this side material is where everything starts to fall apart.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks is the four trials. They take up most of the book, but the actual plot has almost nothing to do with them; in the opening chapters we're given some little breadcrumbs of mystery about wunder (the magical force that drives Nevermoor) vanishing from Morrigan's world, and there's some enticing hints that Morrigan herself has something to do with it and has drawn the attention of powerful forces both inside and outside Nevermoor, but then all of that takes a back-seat until near the end of the book, when the trials are over.
As exciting and nail-biting as they are in the moment (and they are both of those things--the story does a great job depicting Morrigan's desperation to win and hyping up the dire consequences for her if she loses), when everything's over and done with they end up feeling like filler. By the time those plot strands from the beginning were picked up again, I felt as though they came from a different novel. I also wished that Morrigan could have just gotten into the Wundrous Society at the start, so the book could have told more of the story it's clearly more interested in.
All of the overtures toward a wider, multi-book narrative suffer as a result of this. Early on, Morrigan is told tales of the Wundersmith, an infamous magician-inventor who was booted out of Nevermoor one hundred years ago after conducting a brief reign of terror; much later, it turns out the mysterious guy who tried to recruit Morrigan before Jupiter, and who she's been running into throughout the story, is in fact the Wundersmith, who isn't quite as exiled as everyone thought.
This plot twist only works because Morrigan conveniently never finds out basic information about him, including what he looks like or his real name. The book tries to hedge its bets with this by implying that the Wundersmith has developed into a sort of semi-mythical boogeyman figure, but at the same time the population of Nevermoor take him seriously enough that there are several government agencies dedicated solely to making sure he never gets back into the city; it starts to feel like everyone is deliberately concealing information about this very prominent and well-known public figure from Morrigan until it's time to deploy the plot twist, at which point side characters just start telling her about his real identity for no good reason.
The Wundersmith as a concept and a character feels rushed and hastily crammed into the plot, which is a big problem when he's clearly being set up as a central component of the ongoing series storyline (the second book is named after him). This would be more excusable if the book didn't also feature several entire chapters that of extraneous padding, such as a fun, but mostly pointless, detour into the over the top way Nevermoor celebrates Christmas that comes far too late in the story.
There are also a lot of side characters in this thing--like a whole lot, way more than you usually get in books aimed at this age group--and most of them just aren't terribly interesting or memorable. The heart of the book is Jupiter and Morrigan, and they should have been given more room to breathe.
These problems are severe enough that I went from devouring the book in almost a single sitting to struggling mightily to finish it by the end. There's no big breaking point, just a slow, dispiriting decline as the chapters march on and the plates the book has been spinning start to wobble one by one. It doesn't quite come crashing down by the end, but the performance in its entirety isn't nearly as impressive as it seems at the beginning.
Nevermoor was a pretty big deal in the Middle Grade scene--it was 2017's entry in the endless cycle of books hailed as the next Harry Potter that never actually turn into the next Harry Potter, at least in terms of mainstream recognition--and it seems to have been well received by others. I'll admit, this might be where my status as an adult who reads middle grade is colouring my perspective; if I was in the target audience, or even if I just didn't write middle grade myself, there's a good chance I wouldn't have noticed or cared about the book's flaws.
Regardless, I'll probably pick up the sequel when it comes out, because I did genuinely like the two protagonists and the world the first book built. I just hope they get a fitting story this time.