Nicholas Tucker on a clever storyteller who may become a formidable novelist, Marcus Sedgwick
Marcus Sedgwick is a writer to watch. Marking out his territory in the already highly competitive world of fantasy writing, he now has five novels to his credit in only four years and is getting better all the time. A clever storyteller, feeding readers just as much as they need to know while holding back on the bigger surprises to come, he is expert at creating dark, at times almost paranoid atmospheres. Often including his own wood engravings as illustrations, the overall effect of his books can be compelling.
His first novel, Floodland, won the Branford Boase Award for 2001, going into three editions. A taut story about a future Britain half-covered in water, it suffers from occasionally tired English and an over-explanatory technique, which means that the main story is told rather than revealed. The atmosphere of decay and hopelessness also makes it difficult to accept its more or less happy ending. But the main plot still remains gripping enough, and along with Julie Bertagna’s somewhat similar Exodus, it makes a powerful case against global warming of the type that few young readers are likely to forget.
His second novel, Witch Hill, flits between past and present as it links a modern story set in a village with the bleak account of a young witch’s persecution four hundred years ago. The overriding sense of darkness is well established, but once again its climactic last chapter seems unconvincing, in the sense that too many problems get resolved too quickly. But there is also a moment when the writing really takes off after the hero Jamie enters an underground tunnel. This feeling for subterranean worlds is something of a hallmark in all Sedgwick’s writing, particularly in the books still to come.
The Dark Horse is in a different league. Loosely based on long ago historical events in the far north and told in lean, spare prose, it invites comparison with the novels of Henry Treece, another fine writer, about ancient life in the frozen wastes. Ingeniously cutting between two viewpoints – a ploy found in most of his novels – it tells the story of a young girl found living in a cave with wolves who is then taken in by a primitive Scandinavian farming community ruled over by its thuggish leader Horn. The girl, nicknamed Mouse, has special powers that enable her to enter into the minds of animals. She is also a traitor, owing allegiance to a band of horsemen who finally come to rescue her, slaying any villagers in their way. Bloody, brooding but with a strong feeling of affection between the two main characters – something missing so far in his other work – this is an excellent novel.
So too is The Book of Dead Days, a wonderfully sinister story set in a land and time that never was featuring a fake and corrupt magician and his abused young servant known simply as Boy. Together they inhabit a world of astrolabes, hourglasses, sextants and reduction dishes where early science vies with the sort of dangerous magic only available to those in league with the darkest forces. Drawing variously on his knowledge of Victorian cemetery construction, Dr John Dee, eighteenth-century electrical experiments and Bologna’s subterranean canals, Sedgwick creates a genuinely Gothic novel, at times recalling the late, great Leon Garfield, in particular his marvellous story Devil-in-the Fog. Boy and Willow, an orphanage girl he teams up with, have to survive all the terrors that are thrown at them, including another lengthy stay underground.
The concluding title to this sequence, The Dark Flight Down, is not due to be published till July this year. But a sneak preview reveals that Boy and Willow still have to survive more dangers in the befouled city where they live, with the action moving this time from the back streets to a corrupt court ruled over by a vindictive and senile Emperor. Other adult characters remain brutal and untrustworthy, and there is also an additional Phantom to deal with, who lives up a dark staircase and feasts on human blood. Like one of those early black-and-white, silent horror films, the atmosphere is laid on both thick and fast to maximum effect.
Now that Sedgwick has the technical ability to tell such good tales, it would be nice to see him harnessing his skills to stories that are less depressed in tone. Unlike Philip Pullman’s ‘His Dark Materials’, there is also little feeling for inter-textuality in his work, and no wider meanings beyond simple fables involving the necessity to trust. This is not to take away from what he has already done, which is often very good. But were he to move up yet another gear, mixing his Gothic imagination with a greater interest in ideas for their own sake, he could be a formidable novelist indeed.
Nicholas Tucker is honorary senior lecturer in Cultural and Community Studies at Sussex University.
Floodland (1 85881 763 3 pbk), Witch Hill (1 85881 883 4 pbk), The Dark Horse (1 85881 884 2 pbk), The Book of Dead Days (1 84255 217 1 hbk) and The Dark Flight Down (1 84255 218 X hbk, July 2004) are published by Orion at £8.99 hbk and £4.99 pbk.