Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

Cover art by Paddy Donnelly

It is always a good sign when a book starts with a map.

One of the amazing things about Philip Reeve is his ability to create and write about such vastly different worlds in such a way that they come alive on the pages, are usually characters that affect the storyline and live on in your head for a long, long time.

That the same person created and wrote Mortal Engines, Railhead, Larklight (amongst others) and now Utterly Dark is a magical mystery to me. But I am so happy that he did.

Utterly Dark is a foundling, washed up on the shores of the Autumn Isles and taken in by Andrewe Dark, the mysterious Watcher of Wildsea. When her guardian walks into the ocean one day and drowns, Utterly is thrust into the role of Watcher… can she keep the island safe from the threat of the terrifying Gorm? Unforeseen mysteries lie beneath the ocean’s surface. Adventure beckons, and Utterly will unearth astonishing secrets about the sea, her parents and life itself. Wildsea will never be the same again…

I read this in one sitting…always the sign of a good read.

Reeve has created characters with depth, with a backstory in lore, sea witches, sea and land magic and unbelievers.

As Utterly grows, develops friendships and trust in those around her, and learns of her surroundings, the Hidden Islands, the role of the Watcher, the history of Wildsea and its inhabitants over the generations, she struggles to understand her role in what is happening. The sea, its power, mystery and stories invade her dreams. She feels she is being watched all time time and wonders why.

The sea around Wildsea is alive, takes lives and sometimes offers bodies back to the land, is full of mysterious water dragons, Men o’ Weed and other lorish creatures. Why is it so interested in Utterly? Who should she believe…the written logs of her adoptive father (The Watcher)? Her uncle who moved away from the island many years ago and has forgotten the pull of belief in the folklore? Her new friends Aish and Egg (who refuse to touch or go near the sea)? The sea witch, Thurza Froy, who lost her husband to the hidden depths?

Relationships are at the heart of this story and what ultimately help Utterly when she has a choice to make. I think we can all relate to that.

P.S. I grew up crushing eggshells before throwing them away. I still do it. I had been told that if I didn’t, witches would sail to sea in them and sink boats. Uncle Will obviously got told the same story!

From Utterly Dark and the Face of the Deep by Philip Reeve

Thanks to NetGalley and David Fickling Books for the eARC.

The Memory Thieves by Darren Simpson (due out 5 Aug 2021)

What you don’t remember can’t hurt you…

Cyan has lived at the Elsewhere Sanctuary for as long as he can remember, freed by Dr Haven from dark memories of his past life. But when Cyan finds a mysterious warning carved into the bones of a whale skeleton, he starts to wonder what he had to forget to be so happy.

New resident, Jonquil, begins to resist the sanctuary’s treatment, preferring to hold on to her memories – even the bad ones. So when Dr Haven resorts to harsher measures, Cyan embarks on a secret mission to discover the truth about the sanctuary…and himself.

This is an intricately constructed dystopian world, a mixture of what we know blended with sci-fi … an island where the tide went out and never came back again, no wildlife, an invisible boundary shield, a building that can reset its rooms (like 3D Tetris), tracking devices, clocks with no hands, memory suppressing drugs and teenagers who just want to forget.

The themes tackled in this story are difficult ones and raise many ethical questions. Guilt, sorrow, medically induced memory loss, secret experimental drug trials.

Through the story, the author helps us to see that all our memories, experiences and feelings make us who we are, mould us into the people we become. Just because you cannot remember a key event or person does not mean you are no longer unaffected, even subconsciously.

Despite the difficult themes and my worry for what comes next for the characters, I thoroughly enjoyed the story and was engrossed in the lives of the characters and the world they inhabited. This is the first book I have read by Darren Simpson but it definitely won’t be the last.

Thank you to NetGalley and Usborne for the eARC.

Mystery of the Night Watchers by A.M. Howell

MAY, 1910. As the blazing Halley’s comet draws close to the earth, Nancy is uprooted to start a new life in Suffolk with a grandfather she has never met. With every curtain drawn shut, Nancy is forbidden from leaving her grandfather’s house: no one must know that her or her mother are there.

Yet, when Nancy discovers the house’s secret observatory, she watches her mother and grandfather creep out every night… Where are they going? And why mustn’t any of them be seen? Why does the Mayor hate her grandfather? As the mysteries pile up, Nancy has to bring dark secrets from the past to light – even if doing so will put her own life at risk.

A.M. Howell has done it again. A very enjoyable, mysterious, quick-paced adventure with many secrets being revealed to Nancy about her family as she investigates what her mother and grandfather are up to. Some of the secrets she is happy to discover, a couple not so much. The story is about family, the secrets they keep (and the reasons why), trust, power (how not to use it) and standing up for what you know to be the right thing, no matter how difficult it is or who it is you are standing up against. Sometimes you can be surprised by who else will stand with you once you start.

Anyone who knows me, knows I love a map in the front of a book. A.M. Howell doesn’t disappoint, featuring a map of 1910 Bury St. Edmunds as brought to life by Nancy and friends.

I was provided with an eARC of this book by NetGalley and Usborne Publishing. It is published on 8th July 2021.

The Incredible Talking Machine by Jenni Spangler

Pull back the curtain and enter a world where mystery and magic take centre stage in a gloriously gothic, Victorian era adventure.

Twelve-year-old Tig works at Manchester’s Theatre Royale, cleaning, selling tickets, crawling along beams to light the gas stage lamps and anything else that is asked of her by her deliciously villainous boss, Mr Snell.

A strange and intriguing new act, a talking machine, arrives and behaves in a way that Tig just can’t work out. The machine appears to be hinting at a dangerous secret, so Tig must race against time to solve the mysterious clues. Just when she thinks she has, it turns out she was wrong and, because of her impetuousness, problems occur and her close friends start to mistrust her.

An action packed Victorian adventure full of ghosts, gadgets, a dress with pockets (if you know, you know) and shifty villains.

Jenni Spangler has used a real story to create a tense, atmospheric tale involving a cast of characters so well written that I read it in one afternoon. It helps that I have always been fascinated by stagecraft and inventions/curiosities like this

There is plenty of action, from Tig balancing on beams high above the stage in the dark, lighting the new gas stage lamps to mysterious thefts, disappearances and races to try to prevent the machine’s “open to interpretation” predictions of catastrophe.

However, the strength of the story lies in the characters that Jenni has created.

  • Tig, the feisty, impetuous, determined heroine.
  • Nelson, the sensible, cautious friend.
  • Mr Snell, the villainous, permanently nagging boss.
  • Gus, the ambitious but sneaky stagehand.
  • Mr (oops, sorry, Professor) Faber, the eccentric German inventor of the talking machine.
  • Eliza, the stage manager, who does her best to look after Tig when her “act first, think later” attitude gets her in trouble.
  • Euphonia, the talking head…does she have a mind of her own?
  • Annie…you will need to read the book to find out about her.

Chris Mould’s brilliant illustrations capture perfectly the array of characters and the gothic feel of the time, adding even more texture to an already well woven story.

The House of One Hundred Clocks by A.M. Howell

It is 1905. After the death of her mother Helena finds herself moving to Cambridge with her father, a clock maker, and her precious parrot Orbit. Her father has accepted a job in the house of Mr Westcott. The job is a strange one, to keep all the clocks in the house ticking, never letting them stop and to never discuss any strange goings on. Helena finds this bizarre but then discovers other things that deepen her resolve to get to the bottom of the mystery. Just as she works out one puzzle, another one appears.

She befriends Florence, Mr Westcott’s daughter, and Stanley, the only servant left in the house. Together they try to work out why the clocks can never be allowed to stop, why Mr Westcott and his sister, Katherine, do daily clock inspections, what happened to Helena’s father’s predecessor, what is behind Katherine’s mysterious behaviour and why the clock keys disappear.

This is a well paced story with plenty of twists and turns. It also provides plenty of discussion points along the way, including the historical backdrop of the development of flight by the Wright Brothers.

The story has many themes, including loss, grief, superstitions, attitudes to females in engineering/academia at the time and that doing the wrong thing for whatever reason is not going to end well.

It is unusual to find end papers in paperback novels so I was excited to discover this book has them. Saara Söderlund has beautifully illustrated clues to different aspects of the story…clocks, books, hats and feathers.