The Book of Dead Days, by Marcus Sedgwick

The Book of Dead Days cover
Boy, servant to the volatile, isolated stage magician Valerian, is used to being dragged off on obscure missions by his master. But in the last days of the year, Valerian becomes even more unstable than usual, and Boy is caught up in his life-or-death search for a mysterious Book.

This atmospheric tale is set in an unnamed European city, once glorious and now poor and crumbling. A date is never given, but it feels late-19th century to me — the era of natural philosophy, when electricity was understood by a few but still looked like magic to most.

A sense of ominous dread hangs over the whole book — which is exactly what you’d want in a tale that takes place largely at night, in graveyards and rambling Victorian houses. But for a book this bloody and mysterious, it’s a bit slow. The characters seemed vague; I never felt I got to know any of them. And there are some major plot threads that just get dropped (though maybe they will be explained in the sequel.)

This will be a hard sell to my girls, for sure. As for what I thought, I’ll have to sit with it a bit longer to decide if it’s worth picking up the sequel. It definitely wasn’t an instant “LOVE!” but it might be one of those books I don’t think much of at first but can’t shake.

Read-alikes: This reminded me a lot of the Bartimaeus books, as well as John Bellairs, though it’s less straightforward than either. I also kept having flashbacks to the movie The Prestige (one of my favorite movies; don’t bother with the book), because of the stage magician thing, and because Dead Days‘s Kepler reminded me of Tesla.

Also reviewed at: Stainless Steel Droppings, who also saw parallels with The Prestige (read the comments before you get too annoyed about the “flaws with YA lit” bit); Ink Scrawl; and Wands and Worlds (all of whom liked it better than I did).

Spoilery: If by chance you’ve read it, what did you think was up with Valerian’s relationship with Willow? In the subtextual version of the story in my head, I’m pretty sure he was sleeping with her, or she wanted him to, or something. “Curled up next to him like a kitten”? It felt off when she got so attached to Boy — it seemed so obvious that she was angling for Valerian to marry her so she wouldn’t have to work for crazy opera singers anymore.

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