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.