When Ramya was five, living with her parents in London, there was a moment at a Christmas Drinks party she would never forget. She was the only child there, commanded to be on her best behaviour as she took round a silver tray of food. She knew just one of the guests – her Grandpa. She was by the piano when a woman asked – almost ordered – her to play a song for her. Ramya just stared at her, defiantly. Her Grandpa came to her rescue and played himself. The woman, whose name was Portia, sang. The room fell silent, listening, ‘like a dog watching its master,’ thought Ramya. Everyone seemed to find this intense attention normal. Except Ramya. Who dropped her tray – mid-song – with a shattering crash. She sensed ‘something horrifying’. Later, Grandpa asked her what happened. She couldn’t explain. Far from criticising her, Grandpa praised her reaction, telling her she has unusual powers of perception, which she will need. After that evening, her furious mother ensured Ramya never saw her Grandpa again.
We pick things up seven years later. Ramya’s family has moved to Edinburgh, home to her mother’s extended family. When Ramya learns that her Grandpa has died, nothing will stop her attending his funeral in the city. Though a few people speak to her, including relatives she has never met before, she feels alone, alien. She slips away and when she is passing the bronze statue of Scotland’s most famous dog, Greyfriars Bobby, he steps off his plinth and trots about like any other dog. Ramya sees this clearly, but no-one else seems to notice. Later, Ramya’s Aunt Leanna, who has some limited powers herself, explains that Ramya ‘can see through Glamour’ with a clarity no-one else can match. Her cousin Marley, who is to become Ramya’s ally in her adventures, has no powers himself; but he has scoured local libraries and learned that Glamour is ‘a shield. A magical shield. One that supernatural beings use to disguise themselves. They glamour themselves. So that humans cannot see they are different.’ McNicoll is exploring deep roots here; my Shorter Oxford cites this from 1840: ‘Glamour, “A magical or fictitious beauty attaching to any person or…..a delusive or alluring charm”’. That could be Portia; beautiful but cold, Ramya had thought.
Ramya is dyspraxic; an Author’s Note has told us that McNicoll herself was diagnosed when she was nine. Dyspraxia affects Ramya’s motor skills, including her use of a pen, so she’s assigned by well-meaning teachers to tedious and trivial workshops which take no account of her acutely perceptive mind. She’s also articulate and endlessly resilient. In his will, her Grandfather left Ramya a book whose pages seem empty to others. Only she can read the messages it sends, which then disappear. The most consequential warns, ‘Beware the Sirens’. She soon encounters those Sirens and learns how dangerous they can be. Their leader, it emerges, is none other than Portia. To protect the vulnerable Hidden People, the peaceable dwellers in the magical underworld, Ramya first brings together her disunited family to use their neglected supernatural powers as her Grandpa had so longed to see.
The stakes are high, the pace is headlong; there are revelations and dangers, loyalties and betrayals. The fact that magic lies barely hidden beneath the everyday life of school corridors and city streets somehow makes the supernatural all the more credible, so readers won’t so much as blink when they meet a herd of Kelpies in the waters of Loch Lomond or an informative vampire among the shelves of several Edinburgh bookshops, apparently working or browsing, but actually there to meet Ramya.
And the struggle is not over yet. Portia may have suffered a setback this time around, but that will no doubt leave her all the more determined on final victory. The Sirens will return, we are promised, in Spring 2023.