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The Book of Dead Days

Review

The Book of Dead Days

THE BOOK OF DEAD DAYS is set in the days between Christmas and New Year’s, which the author refers to as dead days, "... a strange a quiet interlude, somehow outside the rest of the year, outside time itself." It is in these last few days of the year that the magician Valerian and his assistant Boy search for an arcane book that contains the secret to saving Valerian's life, and of Boy's origins.

Raised on the streets, Boy is taken in by Valerian, a cruel master, who keeps him in just enough food, shelter and fear to command Boy's loyalty. They are joined in the search for the book by two other characters. Willow is a girl who is good at asking questions, and Kepler is one of Valerian's fellow magicians/scientists.

The strongest aspect of the book is its setting. The dark city has something of post-Restoration London, the catacombs of Paris, Frankenstein's Vienna, and a subterranean Venice. Sedgwick's tone is deliciously shivery and should appeal to readers who enjoy the current gothic trend in literature for young people; whether it is "A Series of Unfortunate Events" or "The Abhorsen Trilogy" by Garth Nix.

The author's choice to set the book in a world "...with one foot in the superstitious ancient world and one in the modern rational one..." is also intriguing. Phenomena we now know to have scientific explanation, such as electricity or magnetic fields, were at one time regarded as magic. Sedgwick misses a marvelous opportunity to explore the history of science in a fictional setting. Instead he strings together a number of anachronisms, making Kepler (who seems to be based on the famous astronomer Johannes Kepler) the inventor of a device resembling the modern flashlight. The reader, unless they have some prior knowledge of the history of science, is locked into the same superstitious mind as the 15-year-old protagonist Boy and given few opportunities to escape.

Likewise, Sedgwick's plotting is limited to Boy's point of view. There are a number of things in THE BOOK OF DEAD DAYS that are never explained. There is a mysterious murderer called The Phantom, who makes several convenient appearances to set the plot into motion but then vanishes, never to be heard of again. There is also a lot of missing background information about Valerian's past. Valerian is always telling Boy that there isn't enough time to explain what is happening. This serves the purpose of keeping the plot in motion and the suspense high. It also shows how little Valerian values Boy. However, it also results in a number of unanswered questions at the end of the book. There are a number of plot holes --- such as a character who can teleport out of prison but cannot escape several other sticky situations using the same power --- that are also disappointing.

THE BOOK OF DEAD DAYS contains frequent scenes of grave robbing, as well as attempts to resuscitate animals from the dead. The final scene involves an evil spirit coming to claim the life of one of the characters. It has a truly imaginative setting and an intriguing premise, both of which deserve stronger treatment than they have been given in this book. I expected more from the author, who has a sound reputation as a purveyor of young adult mystery and horror. The last page contains the words, "End of Book One," suggesting Sedgwick plans to continue the adventures of Boy and Willow in further volumes. Perhaps these future ventures will fulfill the potential seen in his previous work and readily available in this book.

Reviewed by Sarah A. Wood on October 12, 2004

The Book of Dead Days
by Marcus Sedgwick

  • Publication Date: October 12, 2004
  • Genres: Fantasy
  • Hardcover: 288 pages
  • Publisher: Wendy Lamb Books
  • ISBN-10: 0385730551
  • ISBN-13: 9780385730556