‘The Black North’ by Nigel McDowell

When Moontrug saw this book cover she knew it was exactly the kind of story she’d love: two silhouetted children on a path of moonlight leading to a remote castle, surrounded by magical creatures. And within pages of reading, Moontrug was completely enthralled by the story…

the black north

Storm clouds are gathering on the Divided Isle. Oona Kavanagh’s home has escaped the worst of the ravages of war, but now the Invaders from the ruined Black North are threatening. When Oona’s twin brother, Morris, is kidnapped, Oona is forced on a journey to the furthest reaches of the country to rescue him. With rumours of the Echoes – a mysterious blight creeping across the land – and Briar-Witches and Invaders at her heels, can Oona save her brother before the South turns as Black as the North?

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Oona is an ABSOLUTELY brilliant character – as fierce and as feisty as Lyra from Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights – and when she summons the last of her strength to prove to the boys of the Cause that she deserves to be listened to, Moontrug wanted to leap up and cheer her on: ‘I’ve been to Innislone! I’ve been to the Hollow Mountains you’re talking about! I’ve seen the Giants in the Melancholy Mountains and I’ve ridden a Whereabouts Wolf! I’ve seen Muddgloggs! … I did all that, not you!’

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The setting is as eerie as they come (‘it was the prompt arrival of a funeral coach; pulled by a silent stallion, driven by a figure of shadow, and summoned by the promise of death’) and full of wonderfully inventive creatures. The Briar-Witches who skulk beneath the ground then burst up to snatch children away are totally terrifying: ‘Oona was snatched by the ankles and pulled down into the earth all the way to the waist… the screaming from beneath didn’t stop… the Briar-Witches racing underground, sending cracks across the walls.’ And when Moontrug read about Oona tearing across the lands on the back of a Whereabouts wolf, she wanted to climb on too and bound off into the unknown. McDowell’s imagination is awesomely huge: ‘…out of the dark loped something large: a creature flecked with filth and reeking of the wild, that Oona thought might’ve been born with a coat coloured somewhere between grey-white and moon but had been stained with so much, marred by long travel through the Black.’

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The sense of danger driving the story on is relentless – and impressively done. The Faceless is a creature Moontrug hopes never to meet: ‘The figure had no face, wore only grey-white blankness for an expression, like a grubby pages awaiting scrawl.’ And the plot is full of unexpected twists and moments of real, real sadness which McDowell’s writes beautifully: ‘she felt she was shedding small pieces, losing little and little more of herself along the way. Thought by the time she reached that small scrap of dark there’d be nothing of Oona Kavanagh left at all.’

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McDowell is an Irish author and his heritage enriches his story, both in the original way the book is written (less confident readers may struggle with it though) and in its awesome names: Ballyboglin, Merrigut, Kavanagh… The Black North is a FANTASTIC read for 9+ years, so good in fact that it’s earned a place on Moontrug’s Altocumulus Tower. All that’s left to say is that tonight Moontrug will be dreaming of riding on the back of a Whereabouts wolf and tomorrow she will be counting down the days for McDowell’s next book.

 

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