Mortlock, by Jon Mayhew, 376 pp, RL 5

I first discovered Jon Mayhew and his debut novel, Mortlock, while perusing the Waterstone's Children's Book Prize 2011 Shortlist, the British version of the Newbery. Mayhew found himself in very good company, including Newbery winner Rebecca Stead and her novel, When You Reach Me and Janice Hardy and book one in her marvelous Healing Wars series, The Shifter. When I read the synopsis of Mayhew's novel I knew right away that I wanted to read it but was unable to because, despite the many awards it has won in England, it does not have an American publisher - yet. I emailed Mr Mayhew to ask if he had found an home for his book in America. The very friendly and generous Mr Mayhew informed me that he has not yet found an American publisher for his book but gladly sent me a copy of his first book as well as his second, The Demon Collector. Mayhew is planning a total of three books in all with the same geographical setting but different main characters.

While reading reviews from British papers in preparation for writing my own review, I learned two fascinating things that put Mortlock into context for me. First, I discovered that Mr Mayhew is also a folk musician. Each chapter in Mortlock begins with a quote from a traditional folk ballad or song, all of which are morbid and sometimes macabre. They all fit in with the story Mayhew tells in Mortlock, but knowing that he has a background in this kind of music makes me want to go back a reread the book to get the most out of the snippets of song. Secondly, I learned that crows belong to the genus Corvus. This is important as crows have a huge and creepy role in Mortlock and the villain of the story himself is named Lord Corvis who, by the end of the book is sprouting feathers. These are just two examples of the vivid and layered story that Mayhew tells in Mortlock, and what a story it is. 

Mayhew has a way with creating characters you want to know more about, so much so that I was a bit disappointed to find that Josie and Alfie, the heroes of Mortlock, do not appear in book two, The Demon Collector. However, Mr Mayhew has kindly shared four bonus stories, two of which feature Josie, on his website. Ah, Josie Chrimes. I have not met a gothic heroine as intriguing as Josie since reading Derek Landy's superb Skulduggery Pleasant series and meeting the awesomely butt-kicking Valkyrie Cain. Set in 1854, Josie Chrimes doesn't rumble as much as Valkyrie, but she can throw a mean knife. In fact, she is the knife-throwing assistant to the Great Cardamom (Mayhew has quite a way with names, much like Derek Landy) a second-rate magician who has found success at the Erato Theater in London. Where he was once a bumbler, Cardamom, who's real name is Edwin Chrimes, was once part of a traveling gypsy circus where he met Josie's mother and took the child under his wing when her mother died. Josie is infinitely fond of Cardamom, or Uncle as she calls him, and trusting, despite the fact that she knows he is hiding something from her. A glimpse into her Uncle's papers reveals a connection to a man named Sebastian Mortlock, accusations of theft and something called the Amarant. Before Josie can learn anymore, the three Aunts arrive at the door to visit with Cardamom. Aunt Jay, Aunt Veronica and Aunt Mag are disturbingly crow-like in their appearance and very suspicious in their actions. Soon, the Great Cardamom is too ill to leave what will be his deathbed and Josie knows she must flee their home or be next into the grave.

A prologue to this tale, set in Abyssinia in 1820, sheds some light on to the mystery that Josie slowly uncovers. We learn that Sebastian Mortlock, Edwin Chrimes and Thurlough Corvis were once good friends who traveled far in search of a long-hidden, powerful flower called the Amarant, which can reanimate the dead. After finding the flower and discovering the depths of its power, the three take an oath never to return to the jungle to take possession of it. However, some thirty-four years later it is clear that oath has been broken. Each of the men involved with the flower seems to have derived some sort of power from it and, while Mortlock's remains the most mysterious, it is clear that Cardamom's magical talents are derived from it somehow as are Corvis', um, avian qualities. The horror aspect of  Mortlock comes from Lord Corvis and his ghuls, shape-shifting evil spirits that can change from animal to human form in seconds. Under the power of Lord Corvis, these ghuls (the three Aunts) take the form of crows and are absolutely delighted to rip the entrails from their human prey. In the absence of prey, they settle for a sackful of offal that is delivered by barge to Lord Corvis' manor every other day. The parts where the ghuls are attacking and eating are a bit gruesome, but in line with the tone of the story. 

After the death of her Uncle, Josie learns that she has a twin brother, Alfie, who has been raised by Mr Higgins, a close friend of Chrimes who is also an undertaker. The specter of death is never far in this book, as are the undead, and Alfie, it seems, has the ability to animate the dead. At first, Josie finds her twin brother coarse and uneducated, and he is none to pleased with her, but over time they learn to trust each other and this is one of the truly great aspects of  Mortlock that made me wish to know more of the story of these siblings. They are captured by Lord Corvis and taken to his mansion where a servant girl named Arabella (yes, she is a nod to Joan Aiken's Arabel's Raven) tries her best to help them escape. However, Lord Corvis does his best to torture the whereabouts of the Amarant out of them, but the tow escape across the marshes to Lorenzo's Incredible Circus. It is here that Josie and Alfie learn about their past, their parentage and their incredible talents. Mayhew is at his best when writing about the circus and the curse that has befallen it. It is here that Deliciously eerie, the chapters build to an inevitable truth. How Josie resists the call of the circus and performing under the same tent as her mother and how Alfie survives to help her escape are breathtaking scenes that are seared into my imagination. 

 Mortlock is not the kind of book I usually gravitate to. It reminds me of the part in one of my favorite books, Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book when the hero, Bod, mistakenly passes through a ghoul-gate and finds himself in the company of three corpse eating creatures. But, like all books that are disturbing, from The Hunger Games to The Graveyard Book to Mortlock, it is the magnificence of the writing, the strength of the characters, that allows a reader to carry on through the dark and uncomfortable parts. From Josie and Alfie to more minor characters such as Gimlet, Evenyule Scrabsnitch and Arabella, the maid of Lord Corvis, Mayhew creates characters I want to know more about, be they bad, good or somewhere in between. I look forward to reading  The Demon Collector and hopefully, by the time book three is finished Mr Mayhew will have an American publisher!

You can learn more about Jon Mayhew and the writing of his trilogy in this great interview at The Enchanted Ink Pot.

Readers who enjoyed this book might also like:
Scepter of the Ancients book one in the Skulduggery Pleasant series by Derek Landy and The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman.

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