We are such stuff as nightmares are made on. And this is a nightmarish novel. Not in the way it’s written or illustrated, which is pure delight, but rather the spooky story, and the frightening concept.
Like many children, Billy is scared of the dark. But it isn’t something he wants to admit. So when his best friend invites him for a sleepover, he has to think of a reason to back out, even though he’d love to attend. Then his fear of the dark becomes all-encompassing, and he gets transported into the ‘Night’s Realm’, an evil domain in which an evil magician rules, a magician whose very essence is kept alive by feeding off children’s fears. And things get very very dark.
Although printed with fairly large font size, and heavily illustrated throughout, what might seem like a read for a youngish child has many scary elements. Which supposedly, is what happens when the writer transplants all his child characters to a world in which their worst nightmares become real. So there are threatening jackdaws, which wouldn’t be out of place in a Hitchcock film, crawlers (little men with jagged teeth who crawl on all fours), witches and warlocks, Shadowmen (gigantic men made from dust), and more. Add to this the sophisticated vocabulary – words such as cacophonous and cadaverous leapt off the page – this is a novel for readers with sophisticated taste, those with a penchant for spooky stories, or for older yet reluctant readers who want to be brave in the face of some horror.
Above all, it is the ideas behind the story that haunt. When Billy is captured, the daytime turns to perpetual night, and although his town looks familiar, it is empty of adults and devoid of all life, other than the night creatures. Doors are locked, shops closed, factories stopped. And over it all rules a cruel magician who manipulates children with magic, and wants them to be as scared as possible.
The most potent moment is when Billy is taken to his cell in the fortress, which appears to be exactly like his bedroom at home, with sunlight behind the curtains. Of course, it’s all fake and the momentary comfort is swept away.
The illustrations add to the dystopian feel of the novel. In fact, at times, it seems as visually authentic as a high-end computer game – the fortress as detailed as a multi-room escape game. The children’s eyes are large – not cute as Disney eyes – but hollowed out and haunting; each illustration adding a wonder and depth to the story being told.
There are some captivating moments – the children’s attraction to light like that of moths fluttering around an electric light bulb, the unspoken fears even among peers, the loss of identity the more subservient to the magician they become. Multiple allusions to other novels abound – from the tempting Turkish delight, to the room of birds in cages, which doesn’t feel like a huge leap from the Harry Potter series. Plays on words too, most particularly the title, for it is a sword in a stone that Billy needs to find in order to execute his victory. There is also a clever use of childhood itself, as Billy ingeniously uses everyday items to aid his run for freedom – a coat hanger, chewing gum etc.
Overall though, the novel’s overriding message is that nothing wondrous comes from staying in comfort zones. Billy has a defence against the darkness, a resilience against the magician, manifest in a physical object at first, but one that serves as an extended metaphor as to what makes each individual tick. At the denouement, the reader becomes aware that everyone is afraid of something, but that facing one’s fears is the first step to overcoming them – and that fears can be overcome.
By stating the fear, and with the support of others, Billy’s confidence grows until in the end he doesn’t even need a physical object to overcome the magician – self-confidence wins the day from the night.
And all for the sake of attending a friend’s sleepover! For age 8+, although if you’re reading it to your child at bedtime, you might need to leave a night light on…
You can buy it here. With thanks to David Fickling for the advance copy.