Chris Westwood Ministry of Pandemonium
Frances Lincoln Children’s Books 2011
A sensitive boy who frequents graveyards. Who sees the spirits of the recently departed. Who displays extraordinary artistic gifts. Who finds it hard to make friends when he starts a new school. And a boy whose father has mysteriously disappeared and a mother who is seriously ill. In other words, a youngster who fulfils many of the prime requirements for the outsider protagonist of a novel. This is Ben Harvester, who is drawn into a world of ghosts and demons and, in the process, discovers the latent abilities he has arising out of that sensitivity, a sensitivity that encompasses both his artistic gifts and his concern for those less well off than himself.
Through a rather odd stranger, Mr October — whose name conjures up that witching period of Halloween or Samhain, with its feasts of the dead — Ben is introduced to the secret Ministry of Pandemonium. As you might expect from a word coined by Milton for Paradise Lost, this synonym for disorder and chaos simply means “all the demons”. It transpires that the Ministry’s job is to locate lost souls and open the door to another world for them before demons gets to them — no easy task given the magnitude of the task. Will Ben manage to put off his inquisitive new friend Becky Sanborne before she discovers his unlikely calling? And what is the secret of his mother’s exhaustion and the explanation for his father’s disappearance?
Ministry of Pandemonium is set in a modern London with a supernatural underground familiar from China Miéville’s Kraken and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere. The boy who haunts cemeteries recalls Bod from Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book. The brick wall near Camden Lock giving access to the Ministry is reminiscent of Platform 9¾ at King’s Cross Station from Rowling’s Harry Potter books. And yet, despite some of the parallels one can easily make, there is a largely a consistent but individual use of these motifs. It’s not a perfect book — Ben, who himself narrates his tale, seems extraordinarily literate for someone of his age (twelve or thirteen, I would guess) and, despite loose ends (this is apparently the first novel in a series), the ending is a little pat, albeit redeemed by some pragmatic touches such as a solution for his father’s absence.
I wasn’t totally satisfied by Ministry of Pandemonium: I didn’t find the terrors very horrific for example, and supporting characters often seemed either a little predictable (Ben’s friends and foes always manage to find him wherever he runs to in the capital) and, for a boy who supposedly cares about people, he seemed singularly prosaic about the several deaths that are occasioned by the novel’s apocalyptic ending (there always is an apocalyptic ending in books such as these, aren’t there, usually set at Halloween). Why too does a West Yorkshire lad like Chris Westwood need to fall into the media cliché of London as the centre of all things?