The “Dead Days” are what author Marcus Sedgwick calls the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, on account of their quiet, mysterious atmosphere; an idea drawn from various mythologies that hold that certain days of the year mark the time when doors to the spirit world open to those of the living. The Book of Dead Days is set entirely within the five-day period between December 27th and December 31st in a sprawling turn-of-the-century city where experiments in electricity and magnetism are indistinguishable from magic and superstition for most of the populace.
A nameless Boy is apprenticed to the magician Valerian, assisting him in his stage illusions that are popular enough to keep food on the table for both of them. Boy has only a rudimentary understanding of how most of the tricks work, but is grateful for daily meals and a bed each night despite his master’s negligent treatment of him. But lately Valerian has been acting oddly: distracted and paranoid, and soon has Boy roped in to help him find a mysterious book.
The nature and location of the book, what it has to do with the spate of murders around the city, why Valerian needs it so badly and how Boy himself figures into its discovery are mysteries that are threaded throughout the plot. Joined by a young seamstress called Willow; the trio travel from abandoned manor to vast cemetery, outlying village to underground catacombs, seeking out clues that lie within crypts, music boxes and the characters’ own pasts.
The plot is best described as a straightforward treasure hunt, but Sedgwick creates a marvelously atmospheric and ashamedly Gothic city in which to set his action, so vivid that you can almost smell the garbage and feel the bitter cold. It won’t come as too much of a spoiler to say that Valerian’s desperation stems from a Faustian pact signed in his youth that he is seeking to annul, and it is his increasingly frantic demeanor (and the threat it poses to his two young assistants) that puts an edge to what would otherwise be a simplistic find-the-McGuffin story.
As protagonists Boy and Willow are somewhat bland but likeable children, reduced to near-drudgery by uncaring guardians and yet still resourceful and optimistic enough to carve out lives for themselves. The real interest lies with Valerian, a Fagin-esque illusionist whose murky past and surprising skills lie outside Boy’s understanding, and Sedgwick keeps a lid on how much his powers are supernatural, and how much is just newfangled technology that Boy cannot yet grasp.
Highly reminiscent of the created worlds of Philip Pullman and (especially) Philip Reeve, The Book of Dead Days and its sequels are brisk, exciting reads with short chapters and spooky ambiance throughout. The conclusion leaves the story wide open for a sequel; perhaps a little too wide as there are several questions that go unanswered, including the importance of Boy’s heritage and several plot-points involving the culprit behind the murders that kick-start the story. Have The Dark Flight Down on standby for quick resolution to the mysteries raised here.
The Dead Days — (2003-2005) Young adult. Publisher: 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 lot can happen in the dead days. 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 are swept into the sprawling blackness of a subterranean city on a journey from which there is no escape.