The days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve are dead days, when spirits roam and magic shifts restlessly just beneath the surface of our lives. A magician called Valerian must save his own life within those few days or pay the price for the pact he made with evil so many years ago. But alchemy and sorcery are no match against the demonic power pursuing him. Helping him is his servant, Boy, a child with no name and no past. The quick-witted orphan girl, Willow, is with them as they dig in death fields at midnight, and as they are swept into the sprawling blackness of a subterranean city on a journey from which there is no escape.
This is one of those books which I’ve read so many times, and had for so long, that the pages are yellow and the spine’s lost all firmness. The first time I opened it, about nine years ago, I read it during the ‘Dead Days’ between Christmas and New Year, and that really added to the atmosphere. Saying that, having read it again at the height of summer, it’s still pretty good, but as Sedgwick books go I’d say they all work best either in autumn or winter.
Anyway, I can’t give anything but praise to The Book of Dead Days. It’s set in a beautiful yet decaying City, full of countless secrets, where the lines of science and magic are blurred. In a way it’s like a steampunk story, but more in the time of the scientific revolution when superstition was still butting heads with the new methodological thinking. It’s a nice time and setting for the story which contemplates it nicely but doesn’t overpower the tale.
Although the story is really told from Boy’s point of view, I love Valerian. He’s one of those characters who you know you should hate, but you’re so intrigued by him that you can’t help but follow along to see where he’s going to take you. I’ve never been able to put my finger on him exactly and that’s why I never get tired of reading about him. Boy is quite likeable too, and so is his friend Willow: two teenagers pulled into Valerian’s mysterious but dire situation.
This was the first of Marcus Sedgwick’s books that I read, and what an introduction! The Book of Dead Days has meaty mystery, some really good and unexpected twists, intriguing characters, and a beautifully simple setting. It’s shot through with brilliant gothic streaks, some dry humour, and just good storytelling. I’d recommend it to anyone from 12+ to adults. A wonderful read that deserves more attention.