Having recently re-read Catherine Fisher’s Snow-Walker Trilogy, I was more than pleased to receive a review copy of her later novel, The Clockwork Crow, and in fact then went on to also read it sequel, The Velvet Fox. Both novels are set in Wales and both concern the orphan Seren Rhys. Seren tells us the outset of the first book that she used to live in India. However,
her parents had both died out there, and she had been brought home on the ship and lived for twelve years at the orphanage of Saint Mary‘s.
I have to say that this did make me wonder initially if we were going to get some sort of retelling of The Secret Garden but this didn’t turn out to be the case. Nevertheless, Seren does find herself travelling to a new home, a house called Plas-y-Flan, to live with a family she has never met, in this case her father’s oldest friend, Captain Arthur Jones, his wife the Lady Mair and their son, Tomas. Her journey is hardly uneventful. Travelling by train in a period that feels around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, she encounters a strange man who speaks in terrified terms of ‘Them’ and who leaves behind him a mysterious parcel which Seren takes with her, hoping to be able to return it, but which she is eventually forced to retain. She arrives at Plas-y-Flan only to find a house inhabited solely by servants and in a state of gloom and despondency. Tomas has disappeared and unable to bear his loss the Captain and his wife have departed leaving Seren in the hands of Mrs Villiers, the housekeeper, Denzil, the general handyman, and Gwyn, the garden boy.
Much dismayed, her dreams of a Dickensian Christmas dashed, Seren unwraps the parcel that she has brought with her and discovers the pieces of what turns out to be the Clockwork Crow of the title. Once reconstructed and his key well and truly wound, he comes to life, informing her that he is a prince, magically ill-used and forced to live his life in the guise of a rumpled old mechanical bird. Seren is sceptical about the prince claim and we should be as well. However, he does turn out to have some idea of what might have happened to Tomas, explaining that he is almost certainly been taken by the Fair Family, the White People, adding you don’t mess with ‘Them’.
Seeking further information, Seren asks Gwyn who tells her
The Tylwyth Teg. The Fair Family. Everyone knows that’s what happens. They take children…They are magic, secret creatures. They never get old, and they can be beautiful, or they can be ugly and twisted and wild. They live under the ground. Or maybe in the lake. This used to be all their land, thousands of years ago, until people came. I think that’s the reason. The Joneses took their land. So They took the boy. My nain says it’s happened before, over and over, with the children. They take them to a place where they never get old.
There is only one hope for Tomas and that is if, a year and a day after he was taken, he can be rescued by someone brave and bold enough to make the attempt and Seren and the Crow are on hand to try.
Well, the very fact that there is a sequel in the shape of The Velvet Fox should tell you that they are successful and for almost a year Seren and Tomas live happily, becoming great friends, indeed such good friends that at the beginning of the second book Tomas gives Seren a bracelet that he has made for her with a secret sign imprinted on it in water from the spring. However, The Fair Family are not to be so easily robbed of their prey and onto the scene comes Mrs Honeybourne to be the governess that Captain Jones cannot even remember engaging and bringing with her a magical carousel and vast quantities of knitting. Clearly evil from the moment she steps through the door, Mrs Honeybourne sets about poisoning Tomas’s mind against Seren and making it appear to the rest of the family and household that the girl has become disruptive and destructive. Recognising that she cannot battle the magical characters from the carousel – the juggler the dancer, the soldier and the velvet fox – alone, Seren remembers the words of the Clockwork Crow, who, when he departed at the end of the previous tale, left with her a feather and the instructions if you’re ever in trouble, write a message to me with this quill. I will probably come.
Well, come he does, and together he and Seren defeat the juggler, the dancer and the soldier but then find themselves facing the most powerful and evil member of the foursome, the velvet fox himself. Can they rescue Tomas a second time or will the fox and Mrs Honeybourne, knitting ever at the ready, prevail? Perhaps the answer lies in the bracelet given by Tomas to Seren, while they gathered horse chestnuts for conkers, as a symbol of their fast-bound friendship.
Like The Snow-Walker Trilogy, as well as an emphasis on magic and myth these books celebrate the power of friendship and the fact that a strong female lead character can achieve pretty much anything that she sets her mind to. Again, I would be reading these to classes of nine and ten year olds and good, independent readers of the same age should lap them up.
With thanks to Firefly Press and NetGalley for the review copy of The Clockwork Crow.