Book of Dead Days by Marcus Sedgwick
Orion Children’s Books HCVR: ISBN 1842552171 PubDate: 07/01/03
Review by Iain Emsley
264 pgs. List price £8.99
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Set between Boxing Day and New Year’s Day, Marcus Sedgwick novel has brought new meaning to this quiet period, for these are the “dead days” - potent with magic, life and death. Sedgwick plays with the pagan idea of death and renewal, embodying the time in his lead characters, Valerian and Boy.
Boy is the magician Valerian’s assistant, aiding him in the prestidigitation and misdirection of his art. Valerian sends him on a mission to retrieve some information, but before he can, the informant is murdered, leading Valerian into a violent rage and a desperate quest through the City and its surroundings, ending in its sewers. Meanwhile, Willow is separated from her mistress and joins Boy and Valerian on their hunt for a particular book.
Sedgwick has created a wonderfully tight novel which understands its own boundaries and is able to utilise them to its advantage. He takes the Gothic mode and refreshes its creaking and crumbling structures for a new audience, one less jaded with the genre. The crumbling houses and increasingly labyrinthine city are put into perspective when Boy climbs onto the roofs or down into the sewers. There are echoes of a variety of cities, both real (Paris, London, Rome) and imaginary (Miéville’s New Crobuzon, Winterson’s city in The Passion). This city reflects the higgledy nature of its inhabitants, the struggle just to survive and exists here very much as a character in the book, morphing around the other characters and devouring them.
Sedgwick’s plotting is tight and ingenious, playing with the Faustian pact but coming up with a modern feel to it, bringing it alive within the retelling. This novel has a patience to it that is rewarding but also a ferocious undertow that will pull the reader. Sedgwick too has a wonderful way of revitalizing the myth and making it more accessible, bringing the essentials to the fore but having it remain almost Dickensian in the telling. Rather than merely retelling, the essentials are represented and told in an engaging fashion.
The Book of Dead Days is a gripping read that is highly enjoyable on so many levels. It comes highly praised and if you have not read any of Sedgwick’s previous books, then start with this one.