Author: Jessica Townsend (twitter)
UK Publisher: Orion Children’s Books
Genre: Fantasy, children’s fiction
Morrigan Crow is determined, daring and ready for a new challenge: to step into her destiny as a Wundersmith, master the mysterious Wretched Arts, and control the power that threatens to consume her. She and her friends are proud to be in their second year of attendance at the magical Wundrous Society, and together they can face anything.
But a strange illness has taken hold of Nevermoor, turning its peaceable Wunimals into mindless, vicious unnimals on the hunt. As victims of the Hollowpox multiply, panic spreads. And with the city she loves in a state of fear, Morrigan quickly realises it is up to her to find a cure for the Hollowpox, even if it will put her – and the rest of Nevermoor – in more danger than ever before…
So, okay, I have spoken in previous reviews about how much I flipping love these books. And I’d been saving this one because I knew it would be a fun, relaxing, enjoyable read for when things were getting rough. I struggled with February and March this year, more than I anticipated, so I thought “Aha! Break glass and administer Hollowpox.”
Ahahaha. Oh dear.
The process of printing a book is quite a long-winded one. This book came out in October 2020. It will have been sent to the printers about three or four months before that, so June/July time. Which means it will have been sent to production for typesetting a few months before THAT, to allow time for proofreading – so, March or April. Which means the final manuscript, copy-edited and ready to go, was probably in preparation for production in late February?
Late February 2020.
There is no way that, when this book was written (across 2019, possibly even 2018), Jessica Townsend could have predicted exactly how the world was going to change and how people were going to react to it, but when I was reading it I had to go back and check the publication date and do some mental mathematics because oof, lads. It’s uncannily on the nose. It’s still a fantastic book, but just… brace yourselves guys.
There’s a mysterious illness that spreads around a certain subset of the population, and no-one knows what is causing it. There are harsh government restrictions put in place to curb the spread, but people protest against them. There are conspiracy theorists, people acting out of aggression towards the Wunimals, who they blame for the illness, and the Wundrous Society who they see as complicit. There is bad faith media coverage, political chicanery, and seeing all the worst of society as it becomes more divided and tribal. There is even criticism of people espousing ideas to protect a minority without considering the minority they want to protect.
I spoke in my review of Wundersmith how much I enjoyed Jessica Townsend’s way of addressing moral grey areas. I still do! This book scales up nicely for the addition year’s age of her readers (assuming, naturally, that the readers pick this up at a rate of one book per school year), and gives a much broader sense of how the world isn’t necessarily fair or kind, and how that can play out. I really enjoyed seeing that in Morrigan as well – she isn’t the bastion of Good and Right around which all this nonsense billows, she is as flawed and grey as the world around her, and her decisions reflect her desire to do right but the execution reflects her limited understanding of the world (and how it is shaped from her traumatic childhood).
Had this book come out in any other year, at any other time, I would be crowing about it. I still am! To a point. The parallels are SO stark in this, and while perhaps the racial discrimination element wasn’t exactly subtle to begin with, putting that alongside a mysterious virus, government restrictions and wild conspiracy theories meant that the whole thing felt rather like a bit of a smack in the face. What it does show, to Townsend’s immense credit, is her understanding of the human condition, of society’s foibles, and she has extrapolated these in a way that is frankly uncanny. I’ve seen a lot of people talk about how Nineteen Eighty-Four was supposed to be a warning not an instruction manual, based on Orwell extrapolating his observations of the politics and world around him. I was not expecting to feel the same way about a middle grade fantasy novel set in a whimsical world that has giant talking cats, but then 2020 happened and here we are.
Townsend does such a good job of explaining and demonstrating really complex personal and social issues with care and thoughtfulness, in a way that helps make them accessible to younger readers. She doesn’t ignore the difficulties of the world, or gloss over them – which she easily could! Her world is not our world, she created a playground full of whimsy and magic, with One Bad Man and lots of neat critters! But instead she takes these characters, and these fanciful stories and settings, and digs down into the real peopleness of it all, for the good or bad it brings. I think it’s fantastic that she is willing to address this sort of thing and makes me think of all my old teacher training literacy planning, talking about presenting children with stories that help them develop empathy, and relate to the real world through metaphor and allegory. Each book in this series brings more moral and social complexities, and no ending is easily tied up in a bow. There are compromises, some of them uncomfortable, but at the heart is a girl learning to be a kinder person, surrounded by kind people who love her, even if she doesn’t quite know how to accept that love entirely because she’s never experienced it before.
I’m extremely excited about the next book in this series, and to see what else Townsend has in store! This series is a keeper for me, but I hope that when – in a few years – I come back at read Hollowpox, it all feels a little bit less like lemon juice in a papercut.