The Book of Dead Days

Title: The Book of Dead Days

Marcus Sedgwick

Boy has been the assistant to the magician Valerian for nearly as long as he can remember. Boy helps with his magic show, looks after him in his home, runs his errands. In return, Valerian provides him a place to stay and sometimes teaches him things like reading. But things are changing. A murderer is roaming the city. Valerian is uneasy—frantically driven to find something in the last few days between Christmas and the New Year. Joined by Willow, a girl from the theater, the three have only a few days to make everything come right . . .

I should preface this by saying the novel is mostly horror, and that’s not a genre I like much unless it’s got something else that stands out to redeem it. So. There is a City, unnamed but given the hints (Kepler, mostly), a savvy reader can make a guess about which one it is. I found the setting vague and generic, with the most interesting bit the underground canal system the party finds themselves traversing near the end. There’s only so much urban grime and stink one can read about before it all starts to blend together.

Character-wise, Valerian not only dominates the story, he’s kind of the only one with a point. Boy is shy and mostly does whatever Valerian wants. Willow, too, is only there to draw out some exposition and to challenge Valerian on a few points. In other words, in a children’s book, the children are really basically side characters. And I found it really aggravating Kepler appears to be the historical figure, only instead of being a strong Christian, he comes off as a jerk who may have been dabbling in the same dark powers Valerian unwisely called.

I didn’t buy the ending either. Well, one vital sentence: that Valerian suddenly realizes Boy’s life has been harder than his own. Really? Boy lived on the streets and then with a temperamental and somewhat abusive guardian. Valerian had it all, lost it all, and is about to pay with his life. Boy has never had to deal with the kinds of relationships Valerian has known—friendships, unrequited love, enemies, etc. And I was annoyed that the murders that seemed to be such a big part of the plot are left completely dangling. At first I thought Valerian’s magic had spawned some phantom that killed for fun or to sustain itself, but that doesn’t seem to be true. It’s actually highly unlikely Valerian was the one to commit the murders, as well (despite the smoke at the second), which leaves the annoying question of who it was. Kepler? He’s literally the only character other than an extremely obese and bad-tempered singer who gets any screen time and would’ve been around to try.

Overall, this isn’t necessarily badly written, but I had to force myself through. It was hard to care about Boy when he shows so little agency, and the conclusion to Valerian’s plot was more or less what I had expected. I rate this book Neutral.

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