In seeking out books that are very special indeed, I seem to be having a remarkably good run at the moment, for here is another.
'In the end it is not nightmares that prevail, but dreams that defeat the dark,' writes Nigel McDowell in The Black North. I am tempted to say this sentiment echos that of Martin Luther King, but 'echoes' is not the right word to use in the context of this particular book as any reader will discover; here it has terrifying connotations. Nevertheless, in crafting this truly remarkable work, Nigel McDowell will give many readers at least a little of the courage to dream the world a better place. Not through simply doing good, but by imagining good into being. This is magical fantasy in every sense.
It is a book that feels both richly old and almost shockingly new, an inheritor and a stunning innovator. In many ways it draws directly on the rich heritage of fantasy, yet at the same time it forges something so new it emerges still white hot and molten. Dazzling and searing. Most remarkable, especially for a children's book (perhaps it should be called YA these days but I am rather set in my ways), it pushes boundaries until they almost, but don't quite snap. It pushes the boundaries of its genre but, even more, those of language itself.
Black North inhabits an 'enclosed world' fantasy island. It doesn't have a map, but easily could. It is under invasion by the minions of a dark lord, led by a terrifying, faceless general with a red-eyed corvoid on his shoulder. The north had already been turned by their dark magic into a devastated wasteland of black ash and foul, clinging mist. They personify the power of fear and nightmare.
When children are stolen and taken to the north our hero figure reluctantly but courageously heads into the great darkness, accompanied by a somewhat irascible wizard/mentor figure, and carrying only a talisman of ancient but, as yet, not fully discovered power. Does this all sound wonderfully, deliciously familiar? It is Frodo heading off to Mordor ('I will take the ring, though I do not know the way.'), it is Belgarion's long, dark journey to destroy Torak. There are even vague echoes (sorry) of Parsifal, in an albeit negative grail quest, and references to the hero-figure as 'fool' and 'foolish' are an iterative motif. It clearly has its roots in rich traditions and archetypes, both of the genre itself and of Irish folklore.
However, this story is remarkably fresh. Both Oona, the feisty heroine, and her companion/mentor (I probably should say would-be mentor), Merrigutt, are engaging and original characters. The invaders seem to be comparatively 'modern' soldier who fight primarily with guns. They speak and act much like squaddies. They are opposed, with more bravado than success, by a more ragtag army of local men and boys, 'The Cause'. This is not the traditional world of sword and sorcery. The devastation the invasion is causing feels, in some ways, rather more like an armed conflict in our world, or perhaps a post-appocoliptic chaos. I don't think this story is actually meant as a metaphor for the author's native Ireland, but surely something of the 'troubles' there have fed through into his imagination.
Yet this is in no way whatsoever a 'natural' world. It is filled with magic as an essential element of its own reality, both the deep traditional magic of the 'old' north and the dark, destructive magic of the evil lord. Morphing of form, conjuring of creatures, child-eating 'briar witches', the wonderfully imagined concepts of the 'dispell'' and the 'echoes' as the expression of negative magic, they are all here. And, as a result of this totally refreshed imagining of a fantasy world, readers can live this old story in a new, vivid, terrifying and sometimes heart-breaking way. Although the ending is largely upbeat and satisfying as a resolution, the future is enigmatic and has been won only at high cost. This is children's fiction of considerable maturity and humanity - and all the better for it.
Even more thrilling, though, is the language and style of writing. This pushes boundaries in the most exciting and refreshing way of all. The prose is intense and beautiful, poetic in every sense, but never obscure. Quite the reverse; it is compellingly and strikingly communicative. Sometimes, at moments of tensions, it reduces to a fractured delivery, short or incomplete stenteces and irregular syntax heightening drama, pace and reader engagement. It is even, occasionally and for very brief sections, laid out in the short, patterned lines of a poem. But, more often, it settles into a magical, flowing lilt. It is remarkable and totally enthralling. It certainly has the cadences, the idioms of Irish speech behind it. But is is more than this. Poetic is the only word I can come up with. However, I don't want to give any impression that it is precious or self-regarding; it is most certainly not. Its overall effect is mesmerising and quite beutifully matched to the drama and pace of the ever-deloping narrative. It is like a film that sometimes dazzles with quick, flashing images, then settles into slow soft focus, or pans through action then closes in onto talking heads before flowing on again. More than anything, the prose, to me, almost begs to be spoken aloud. In that sense it reminded me of Under Milk Wood, despite the different underlying accent. It was just in the way that it it seems to come even more alive when spoken, or at least heard in the reading mind. It is quite magical. What a way to tell a tale!
On YouTube is a brief extract of Nigel McDowell reading, not from this book but from his earlier Tall Tales From Pitch End. Once I had heard him and caught the voice, it's accent, it's lilt, in my mind I continually imagined that voice reading Black North to me. The cadences and the sensitivity to the pitch and flow of the language fit so well. Amazing. He should record his own work as audio books.
Which reminds me I must now read Pitch End which I missed.
Ireland seems yet again to have given us a great writer here. That he is working in the field of children's literature is just wonderful. That he is so young is hugely promising.