Wild magic waiting

© C A Lovegrove

Harklights by Tim Tilley.
Usborne Publishing 2021.

A match factory which masquerades as an orphanage. A manikin which it emerges was once alive. A monster which in reality mayn’t be alive. Butterflies which aren’t insects. A boy who doubts he has what it takes to put things right. It’s all here in Harklights, a debut novel from the first ever winner of the Joan Aiken Future Classics Prize, set in a vaguely Victorian world with elements of fantasy and steampunk.

I’m not usually a fan of long narratives told in the present tense but here I think it works well: Wick’s first person tale gives both a sense of urgency and also uncertainty, just as youngsters’ accounts often are, and while the reader may guess at some of the things Wick puzzles over nothing is truly known until all is revealed.

While our focus is on the narrator’s hopes and fears, behind them all is a tale of despoilation, exploitation and cruelty fully relevant in our contemporary world which will resonate even with the most innocent young reader.

© C A Lovegrove

Harklights is the name of a match factory, the kind that supplied the product that Hans Christian Anderson’s little matchgirl sold. Run by the irredeemably wicked Miss Boggett, a witch-like figure known to the orphans as Old Ma Bogey, the prison-like building manufactures Everstrikes matches made from the trees surrounding it, steadily encroaching on Havenwood Forest and endangering the wildlife that inhabits it. When Wick first rescues a miniature baby and then dramatically escapes from Harklights he discovers the existence of hobs, little people who live in harmony with nature. The tensions that arise from leaving his friends behind, conquering his fears, overcoming the suspicions of certain hobs and learning the extent of Harklights’ destructive plans are what drives the story forward until the explosive climax.

The author has cleverly made use of familiar tropes to not only drive through an ecological message but to acknowledge the anxieties that youngsters often feel regarding family, friends, self-worth and potential. Miss Boggett breaks down each youngster’s sense of self by destroying their identies and names, subjecting them to terrible physical and psychological cruelty, denying them the food and creature comforts she herself enjoys. He underlines the notion that we should be stewards of nature, not its masters, but he also entertains, not least in the distinctive monochrome illustrations and map he himself has created for the publication. As he puts it himself, Wild Magic is waiting!

Speaking as an adult I’m not totally convinced of the story’s pacing and of the relationships Wick has not only built but will also build up; but then I’m not the target readership, for whom life may feel like a continuous present and relationships are often mysteries that continue to puzzle. Still, I’m not sure that I’ve entirely come to terms with those conundrums myself.


Though I received Harklights from the author for the favour of a review, I’ve tried to give it an honest assessment. It fits in too with my Wyrd & Wonder reads this month.

12 thoughts on “Wild magic waiting

    1. She’s one of the malicious witchy types that Joan Aiken does so well in the Wolves Chronicles — you have to wonder if she was born that way or if there was something in her upbringing (and in fact there are hints about a father who turns from benign to something dubious).

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  1. Am sorry this didn’t entirely work out, but I am getting Wolves Chronicles vibes from your description (and I’ve still only read the first two); I may give it a try sometime.

    ‘He underlines the notion that we should be stewards of nature, not its masters..’ This is something one certainly hopes for but with not much optimism as even the current scenario, and the positive impacts we saw during our first lockdown last year don’t seem to have drummed much sense into people who are simply waiting to get back to the usual course.

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    1. A bit of synchronicity: my partner and I were just talking about mental health problems being exacerbated as well as caused by the current global situation and yet how there are shortsighted people both in and out of power who are desperate to “get back to normal” regardless of the risks which have not evaporated. And of course there are those who still believe it’s all a hoax, some of whom in the enactment of a kind of karma go on to contract the virus, become extremely ill and even die. I am sorry the powers-that-be in India have been so negligent of their people’s wellbeing, tantamount to criminal behaviour.

      If you did give this a go I’d be interested in what you thought—I think the reviews on Goodreads have been very positive so far so it may be that I’m just not in the ideal position to assess it fairly, though I have to say I did find much to enjoy here.

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      1. I really can’t understand it; re the government, the first time around I felt they did pretty well in terms of imposing and enforcing the lockdown strictly, but this time sadly their political motivations seem to have counted more with them.

        I am still shocked to see people also not taking this seriously to the extent that there are still those going for walks (which technically they shouldn’t even in the limited lockdown we’re having) and many still without masks. There are fines and such on not wearing them but naturally we have police checking on people in public places but not on streets within residential areas. Considering how many are losing their lives and even in the neighbourhood, one would expect at least people to be a little more responsible.

        It’s sad that even something like this, and especially the scale we are witnessing this time around hasn’t led very many to see sense.

        I’ve popped the name on to my list.

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        1. Here’s the thing, Mallika, about populist governments (which is what you and I both have): many of their leaders want to be popular as well as populist, and often pursue policies they think will placate supporters and increase popularity.

          But they also get frustrated when a sizeable proportion of the population don’t ‘appreciate’ their populist policies and, worse, actually criticise them for their failures. This often has the effect of making those leaders double down on their wrongheadedness.

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  2. Recently saw Tony Robinson (should that be Sir?) in a program about exploitation of working people. If you worked in a match factory you didn’t need Miss Boggett to come off badly. Many workers developed suppurating sores on the jawline which became malignant and usually caused death;all caused by exposure to the phosphorus.

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    1. You’re quite correct about the terrible conditions in such factories, not to forget other industries which similarly neglected workers’ welfare, health and working conditions. Tilley’s novel has plenty of tragedies — deaths, injuries, trauma — so probably didn’t need to add the effects of working with hazardous materials such as phosphorus, any more than Lewis Carroll needed to mention the effects of mercury poisoning that doubtless sent his Mad Hatter mad. The novel is mostly about emphasising the virtues of stewardship over all forms of exploitation, I suppose.

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    1. I’m sorry not to have made it clearer, Jeanne, but this is less YA than Middle Grade, and the steampunk element is very slight. In education in England and Wales it would best suit Key Stage 2 readers (roughly 7 to 11) though that doesn’t preclude slightly older readers getting a lot out of it, especially if they see the novel as a covert critique of rampant capitalism and neoliberal values ignoring environmental concerns.

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