A classic in the making

Catherine Fisher: The Clockwork Crow
Firefly Press 2018

Catherine Fisher’s children’s fantasy has many of those wonderful spooky Victorian and steampunk tropes parcelled up in one package: an orphan, mist-wreathed railway platforms, a tall dark stranger, a mysterious mansion with a fierce housekeeper, a talking automaton, a blizzard at Christmas and the ever-present threat of a dangerous fairy realm. Orphan Seren Rhys is travelling by train to Wales from London to be adopted by, she hopes, kindly relatives; instead she finds a depleted household with a dark secret history, a household in which she is treated with suspicion and hedged by injunctions.

And it all starts with a clockwork crow delivered all in bits and wrapped up with newspaper.

The mansion at Trefil is called Plas-y-Fran (Welsh for Crow or Raven Court), highly appropriate as the corvid family is associated with the supernatural as well as death. Seren (her name means ‘star’ in Welsh) is dismayed to find that Captain Arthur Jones, Lady Mair his wife, and their young son Tomos are nowhere in evidence, only the grumpy Mrs Villiers and the factotum Denzil in a building where everything is covered in dust sheets.

Left to her own devices she has few options: to read her favourite books, to put together the mechanical crow she has been left with in a station waiting room, and to explore the mansion—including the attic room she has been forbidden to look at.

This is a delicious fantasy. First of all, it has echoes of all those perennial children’s classics, old and new: Joan Aiken’s The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, Philip Pullman’s Clockwork, John Masefield’s The Box of Delights and many others, but without any hint of slavish imitation. Then it includes so many delightful motifs: the sarcastic talking crow itself, the fascination of snow globes as a miniature world, the tropes of the forbidden room (familiar from the Bluebeard tale) and the hidden tunnels leading off a cellar (as in the Famous Five books, for example). The author slips in references to late Victorian fiction such as the Sherlock Holmes novels, and plays with fears of being cut off by the snow, mitigated by an anticipated white Christmas.

And running through the whole novel like a golden thread is Seren herself, an aspect perhaps of the ideal reader, and possibly the author: filled with a love of learning and of books, hoping for love and friendship in an uncertain world, fiercely defending the truth as she perceives it. But will she be able, when put to the test, to surmount her fears and face up to the dangerous webs woven by the Tylwyth Teg, the Fair Folk of Welsh tradition, or will she be as trapped as the person she set out to save? Will she be able to solve the mystery of the clockwork crow and rescue him from the fate he’d been sentenced to? And will she ever find the hoped-for family for which she’d left the orphanage?

There are delightful rhyming couplets beginning each chapter that are like spells, all adding to the charm. All in all I’m so glad I spotted this, intrigued by the title and then spotting the author’s name, a well regarded Welsh author whose 2002 novel Corbenic I positively raced through when it first came out. The Clockwork Crow, meanwhile, is a magical little book that deserves to do well and to become in turn a classic in its own right.


This review is part of Dewithon (the Wales Readathon) organised by Paula Bardell-Hedley at The Book Jotter. The Clockwork Crow is one of three fiction titles shortlisted in the Blue Peter Book Awards for 2019, the two categories being the Best Story and the Best Book with Facts. The two winning books will be picked by judging schools around the country and announced live on BBC’s Blue Peter programme for World Book Day on Thursday 7th March 2019.

Incidentally there is a Trefil (‘Celandine farm’) near Tredegar in South Wales, officially the highest village in the country at 409 metres, at the end of a one-way road. But this Trefil is not that Trefil.

25 thoughts on “A classic in the making

  1. earthbalm

    Thanks for making me aware of this novel Chris. I shall certainly be seeking this one out and soon. The real Trefoil is the home of Welsh drummer Ray Phillips (or was) and is a popular filming location. Of course, I could be talking complete rubbish. I remember where your daughter lives but not the house number. I shall drop off the books a week today, if it is convenient.

    1. Do seek it out, Dale—maybe before the 7th? 🙂 Your local library might have it in the children’s section (though I got my copy from the bookshop).

      Oh, and the house is No 8, and thanks in advance—I’m always grateful, even if it takes me a while to get round to reading them!

      1. earthbalm

        Can no longer get to the local library now I’m gainfully employed but might order from Waterstones etc.

  2. Pingback: Wales Readathon 2019 – Book Jotter

  3. I was drawn to the title when I saw your review on the reader and oh my word, it sounds just like the kind of book I’ve always loved reading – and would love to write too! Will definitely look out for this and her other books too. Thanks for the heads up

    1. I’ve read one and tried a couple of other YA books by Catherine Fisher, Lynn, but they can be a wee bit or even unremittingly dark.

      This one, for younger readers, is leavened by the Crow (rather as does Kehaar the gull in Watership Down) and lifted by the author’s adroit handling of motifs and atmosphere, not forgetting the strongminded Seren.

      I had a glance at Goodreads reviews after I published this and see that my estimation is generally echoed!

  4. earthbalm

    I’ve met the author a couple of times when she spoke to groups of pupils (one of the few perks of being a teacher). She was interesting to listen and talk to then and seems to have developed more as a writer since that time.

    1. Glad to hear she’s continuing to engage with young readers. She talked to the Pendragon Society soon after Corbenic was published in 2002, and I remember her as quite intense and serious, but she certainly knew her stuff and wrote superbly.

  5. Well that’s me hooked, steam-punk with Victorian Gothic and crows? Sounds wonderful, and I’m so glad you’ve saved me from missing Catherine Fisher.

    1. I can see this made into a delightful film, if adapted sensitively, but some movie producers can’t leave well alone and need to lay the CGI and extraneous subplots on really thick. Best to leave it to the cinema of one’s imagination!

  6. This seems excellent, with everything I look for in a fantasy novel.

    Does she manage to add dashes of humour? Crow sarcasm seems a good likely vehicle.

    That is the one thing I have found many good modern fantasies lack. Perhaps the writers are afraid of trivialising their deathless prose.

    1. There is crow sarcasm aplenty, you’ll be pleased to know! Light and shade, shade and light is what works for me in fantasy, and clearly you too!

  7. Kristen M.

    This sounds like one I would really enjoy. If it isn’t available in the US before next Christmas, I may have to place an international order!

    1. Firefly Press is a smallish (by international standards) Welsh publishing house with quite a few authors on its books, literally and metaphorically (such as Horatio Clare, whose Aubrey and the Terrible Yoot I reviewed at https://wp.me/s2oNj1-yoot).

      Christmas is certainly a good time to read the Fisher though, Kristen, so I hope you manage to locate a copy before then!

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