Following early success
I was much taken with Paul Durham's debut book, The Luck Uglies, and it has since been a real pleasure to see it developed into an original and very engaging fantasy trilogy. I can strongly recommend the complete sequence.
If you are interested, my original review of that first novel can still be read here, in the BLOG ARCHIVE from July 2014.
If anything I found his latest novel, The Last Gargoyle, even more enjoyable. It is a real delight of a book and hugely entertaining, chillingly spooky in the most heart-warming of ways! Penhallow, its unusual hero, is a rare stone grotesque (emphatically NOT a gargoyle - that is something quite different) on an old building in the US city of Boston. However he has the ability to leave his sculpted shell in his 'wisp' shape as a hoodie-clad street boy, and a decidedly cocky one to boot. Despite his grim nature, his character is completely benign (at least to living people) and it is his is his mission to protect his human 'wards' from the many ghouls, spectres and other monstrosities that lurk in the dark corners of the city. As well as being powerful he is both funny and immensely likablr. If you imagine a younger cousin of Jonathan Stroud's Bartimaeus and then plonk him as the principal ghost-buster in a Lockwood and Co plot line, then you will be getting somewhere close to the idea. However, I do not mean to imply that this book is in any way a copycat work. Paul Durham is very much his own writer, with an imagination and a style very distinctly his own, and Penhallow is a wonderfully clever and original creation in his own right. (Never call him 'Goyle' by the way. He hates it. Penhallow that is. Not Paul Durham. Although . . . )
A city that sometimes sleeps
One of a good number of master strokes is the setting of this tale in its essentially real location. Paul Durham clearly knows Boston well and calls it 'a very old city - at least by American standards'. His consequently vivid evocation of place, with a real sense of history and associated atmosphere, gives the tale a compelling grounding. There is ample precedent for children responding particularly strongly to books with real settings, whether rural or urban, local or exotic, and this one certainly belongs in that tradition. Readers do not even seem to need to know a locale personally to be caught under its spell. The author's love of a place is often infectious, and it is not at all uncommon for children (and even the adults they become) to later want to seek out and get to know locations that they first encountered in novels. I have actually visited Boston myself, although a good while back, but this book of Paul Durham's has put a return firmly on my bucket list.
A girl called Viola
Since this writer's first trilogy, he has shifted from using a strong girl lead character to a male one. However a spunky girl still features prominently in The Last Gargoyle in the person of 'Viola', a new friend for Goyle (sorry). Although not her real name, he calls her Viola because of the violin case she always carries around with her. Eh? Well actually he knows it's a case for a violin and not a viola, but he gets it deliberately wrong because she is the one who persistently calls him Goyle (oops sorry again) even though he's a grotesque and emphatically NOT a gargoyle at all. The continual banter between these two, a superficial and often witty disrespect that actually hides much deeper feelings, is one of the true delights of the book. Their growing relationship, beautifully revealed through Paul Durhams skilful writing, is as charming as it is entertaining. It is ultimately deeply touching too.
Such clever plotting
Over and above everything though, this books works quite brilliantly as story. Paul Durham has developed into a consummate plotter. Not only does he fill his fiction with so many effective ingredients - fascinating, finely drawn and richly developed young protagonists, a chilling villain in the person of the 'Boneless King, ghouls galore and plenty of humour - but he constructs a clever storyline with more than enough intrigue and surprise to keep the pages turning right up to its thrilling climax - and even beyond. (But no spoilers. ) However, beneath all the chilling spookiness, it is a book with a great deal of heart. It is wonderful 'escapist' entertainment, which children often need in their reading. But it provides some important stuff to think about too. For all its grotesquery, it may well leave them with a little more human understanding than when they started.
The present and the future
Although I am not a big fan of the current trend to write first person narrative in the present tense, I have to admit that it does feel right here. Its immediacy seems to capture well the voice of
Goyle Penhallow. It is actually great fun that the character only discovers things alongside the reader - whether unearthing the true nature and intent of the Boneless King, or, indeed, penetrating the intrigues surrounding 'Viola'.
This author's first trilogy has subsequently been published here in the UK (and internationally), and I sincerely hope that the same thing happens with this book. The Last Gargoyle has so many features that kids love - ghouls and ghosties, humour aplenty, original and likeable young characters, an engrossing storyline with plenty of monster-bashing (or in this case monster-eating), intriguing mysteries - and lots of compassion. I know it will be relished by an enormous audience if it gets the chance.
Neat cover too, by the way. Sometimes illustrations don't capture a character quite as you imagine them, but, to me, this depiction seems exactly right for (you-know-who).