Shane Hegarty’s newly published début novel for Middle Grade readers, Darkmouth, has been causing quite the stir.
Artist: James de la Rue
Sold to Harper Collins for an excellent sum, and recently acquired by a film company (likely theatrical release is set for 2017), it’s stories like this that give me hope there’s life, and plenty of it, in the children’s book market.
Darkmouth introduces us to Finn – who, at the story’s outset, has no surname because he hasn’t earned it yet – and his family. They live in the town of Darkmouth, which is one of a number of Blighted Villages dotted all over the world where monsters can manipulate the fabric of reality and break through into our world. These monsters, including Griffins and Minotaurs and Manticores, and some less familiar creatures like Hogboons, are correctly known as Legends – and, despite being as real as you or me, have been relegated over the centuries to myth and fantasy in an attempt to cope with the fact that they aren’t, in fact, imaginary at all. They’re out there, and they want to take over the world.
Only a handful of brave people can stop them – the Legend Hunters, who are stationed in the Blighted Villages, waiting for a chance to capture and neutralise any encroaching Legends. Finn’s dad, Hugo, is one such Hunter, and Finn (as is customary) is supposed to take over after him. The only problem? Finn would rather be a vet. He doesn’t have the stomach or the heart to hunt and destroy living creatures and, despite being very brave, feels he is completely inadequate and unequal to his calling. A calling, by the way, which he doesn’t even want in the first place.
This central conflict is a strong one, and it is a perfect base for the story. Hugo is a great character (despite being rather stubborn, dense and sometimes extremely insensitive), Finn is likeable and intelligent, always ready to do his best despite his desperate fear, and I particularly liked Clara, Finn’s mother, who – unlike a lot of mothers in children’s fiction – is not only alive, but has a career of her very own. She is a dentist, and a successful one at that, and her occupation becomes important as the plot thickens.
Then, we have Emmie and her father Steve, who arrive in Darkmouth at an important point in Finn’s life. He’s learned he has a vital test to pass in order to become a Legend Hunter, a test he feels he is in no way prepared for or capable of passing, and then Emmie turns up in Finn’s class at school one day. Immediately, this is flagged as ‘weird’; nobody moves to Darkmouth. It has a terrible reputation. So, why is she there?
As much as I enjoyed the other players in this story, I thought Emmie, and Steve, were underdeveloped as characters. Steve isn’t important until the end, but Emmie is a regular figure throughout the book, and I never managed to warm to her. This might be because of the role she plays in the story (lips are sealed!) but I’m not sure. I also thought some of the other characters were ‘stock’, like the Savage brothers (who are, as you may have guessed, the bullies of the piece). One of the most significant characters, for me, was Sergeant Doyle, the local policeman, who is only in the story for a very brief time but who left a large emotional footprint on me. Having said that I did enjoy the ‘villain’, naming no names, and – even though I saw it coming – the twist at the end, and the opening up of another mystery, right in time for the sequel which is coming later this year.
The book is paced well and the dialogue is sparky and good, full of wit and banter and clever images. Finn’s family have a wonderful dynamic, and I loved how their relationships to one another are portrayed. I thought Finn was genuinely three-dimensional, and the sort of character I’d cheer on any day of the week. The compassion he brings to everyone and everything, and into every situation, is a fantastic touch. I also really enjoyed the inventions in the story – the Desiccator, which shrinks Legends into tiny balls, and the Reanimator (which does what it says on the tin) – and the fact that surnames have to be earned, depending on a Legend Hunter’s success or failure in his calling.
I didn’t love the story, though. It never wormed its way into my heart, the way other stories do, and have done in the past. I was interested, but not gripped; committed, but not invested. Make of that what you will. Darkmouth is a clever book, well written, and should appeal to anyone with a sense of adventure and a love for Tales of Mortal Peril… so, basically, everyone. I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, and to the movie, and I’m delighted to see a fellow Irish author doing so well. More power to you, Shane Hegarty!