Be a Player, Not a Pawn.
Garth Nix’s Mister Monday begins a brand new children’s fantasy epic: The Keys to the Kingdom. This Australian author is fast-becoming one of the biggest names in fantasy with his reinvention of the genre and his intricate, fascinating plots. Unlike other such authors, who place their heroes in a medieval realm of magical swords, horse-back riding and dragons, Nix follows the example of writers such as Philip Pullman, Susanna Clarke, and (to a lesser degree) J.K. Rowling by creating a more contemporary fantasy-world with the flavors and style of the 18th and 19th centuries. Where his Seventh Tower series was written for younger readers, and Abhorsen trilogy for teenagers (though many adults got in on the act), The Keys to the Kingdom are situated smack dab in the center of these two age groups — though again, I hope this doesn’t prevent people of any age group from reading them.
The Epicentre of the Universe is a realm known as “The House” — a labyrinth of rooms and halls and fantastical landscapes, that are ruled over by the treacherous Trustees, or as they are more commonly known, the Morrow Days. Their task was to take over the supervision of our world (or ‘The Secondary Realms’) from the creator — the Architect, who left Her instructions written in a Will, to be carried out accordingly. But the Days tore the Will into seven pieces and scattered the scraps across the known worlds to be guarded forever more, and only now — thousands of years later — has one fragment of the Will managed to escape…
Meanwhile, in the ordinary world, Arthur Penhaligon is coping with the pressures of the first day at a new school. Forced to go on a cross-country run — even though he has severe asthma — Arthur soon finds himself lagging behind, and eventually collapses on the lawn. Whilst his classmates run for help, the strangest thing happens: a young man and his butler appear from nowhere, and bequeath to Arthur something that they call a “Key” (though to Arthur it looks more like a large minute hand from a clock), and a strange book called ‘The Compleat Atlas of the House and Immediate Environs’. But when a fight emerges between the two figures — Mister Monday and Sneezer — they both disappear without any further regard to Arthur.
And from there, things just get stranger. A giant House has appeared on the block that only Arthur can see, and ugly dog-faced men in bowler hats are coming after him. Worse of all is the outbreak of a mysterious illness that puts the whole community into quarantine and Arthur’s own family in danger. Seeing no other way of helping, Arthur travels to the House, uses his key, and enters its domain… Arthur has been chosen by the Will to become Heir to the Kingdom and set right the corruption that is destroying management of the realm.
What follows is an amazing adventure through a world chock-full of danger, intrigue, invention and surprises. The House is one of the most colorful places you could ever wish to visit, complete with everything from elevators to dinosaurs to coal cellars. Nix delights in playing with words and concepts, and the phrases “got a frog in your throat” and “having a silver tongue” take on whole new meaning here, and things such as books, paper, the written word and language are given a solid, tangible quality that is thought-provoking and completely original. Old legends are given new life (such as the tale of the Pied Piper and the Greek myth of Prometheus) and concepts and symbols given real form: such as the days of the week in human form, and their angelic-looking (but quite devilish) Dawn, Noon and Dusks.
Throughout, Arthur is a sympathetic, understandable protagonist, who reacts to his adventures in a way that you’d expect a young boy to do, but with extraordinary resilience and courage, as does his young sidekick Suzy Turquoise Blue. All other characters are vivid and interesting, both good and bad, and immensely memorable. Also, Nix sprinkles little hints and clues to the next books throughout the text, so read carefully!
Mister Monday suffers slightly from the number of ideas and concepts that Nix crams between its covers, which can seem either random or confusing to a first-time reader. By the time they get on to the next books, the general formula of where Nix is going is straightened out and most of the things Arthur sees and hears of in this first book are understandable (which should justify a second reading!). Make sure Grim Tuesday is on hand to continue Arthur’s story.
Arthur Penhaligon was going to die of an asthma attack when a strange man appeared in an odd conveyance that seemed to be a cross between a wheelchair and a bathtub, and pressed a key into his hand — a key shaped like the minute hand of a clock. He’s about to give Arthur the hour hand key as well, when help arrives, and the old man disappears as quickly as he arrived. From that moment on, nothing will be the same. The key is actually the Lower Key to the House, and Arthur has been named heir, and if he wants to save the world from a mysterious plague that arrived with the dog-faced men known as Fetchers who were sent to retrieve the key, he’s going to have to claim him inheritance, venture into the House, and get the rest of the key from Mister Monday, who will resist relinquishing the source of his power.
Mister Monday, the first book in The Keys of the Kingdom, a series of seven books by Garth Nix, sets off into an entertaining, almost surreal romp into a parallel dimension. There powers are divided into seven realms, each presided over by a specific day. In this book we meet Mister Monday and his henchmen Dawn, Noon, and Dusk. While the conceit of time could grow old very quickly, making the book feel forced, Nix keeps it fresh and exciting. There are rational limitations built into the system as well, making time a force that both sides in the fight have to reckon with, not just Arthur and his friends.
Arthur manages to accumulate some interesting allies in his travels through the house — a talking frog, one of the girls spirited away by the Pied Piper of Hamelin, and he also has to decide if Monday’s Dusk is serious in his overtures of assistance. The motley assortment of characters in the House is fascinating and intriguing, but unfortunately, it throws the rather flat human world into stark relief. Arthur insists on finding the cure so he can get back and save the people he left behind, but the emotional ties he demonstrates haven’t been imbued with veracity through the story.
These stories are designed for 5-8 graders, and any kid who has worked his way through Harry Potter will enjoy this fun tale of adventure, absurdity, and intrigue. Recommended for anyone who enjoys fantasy targeted to the younger set, but which is still interesting enough for an adult.