Book review: The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery

ELS librarian Samantha goes on an epic adventure with Ross Montgomery’s latest novel, The Midnight Guardians.

When evacuee Col’s childhood imaginary friends come to life, he discovers a world where myths and legends are real. But they bring dire news: Col’s sister is in danger.

Together with his guardians – a six-foot tiger, a badger in a waistcoat and a miniature knight – Col must race to Blitz-bombed London to save her.

But there are darker forces at work, even than the Nazi bombings. Soon Col is pursued by the terrifying Midwinter King, who is determined to bring an eternal darkness down over everything.

There are fictional characters that you like. And then there are Pendlebury, Mr Noakes and the King of Rogues. I cannot fully convey my devotion to these characters, expect to say that I am one re-read away from commissioning author Ross Montgomery to write an annual short story collection dedicated to their brilliance. It would be full of relatable situations, like a tiger growing to the size of a house (Pendlebury), a badger adjusting his waistcoat before bopping somebody over the head with his club (Mr Noakes), or a tiny, moustachioed knight challenging a tractor to a duel (the King of Rogues). The Guardians are, after all, the bravest, kindest, most loyal imaginary friends that a child – or a 32-year-old librarian – could hope for. They also know their way around a punchline.

It makes sense, however, for the Guardians to exist only in this wonderful, magical book, where readers can return to them – as Col does in the opening chapters – ready for the adventure to begin once more.

As well as being a hugely inventive, witty and atmospheric fantasy story – with the most terrifying villain in recent fiction – The Midnight Guardians works extraordinarily well as a historical novel. Set in December 1940, it captures Britain just over a year into World War II. On their journey from Buxton to London, Col and the Guardians encounter a landscape that is being torn apart, ancient trees uprooted for the war effort, leaving ‘dead earth’ behind, and a city near-destroyed by bombs. Between bouts with talking trees, fairies (RIP King Buttercup), giants and very chatty bogies, they meet people who have been changed by war. Some, like bus-driver Ida, show remarkable courage, while others grow cruel, their ignorance spreading a different kind of darkness.

The first – and most important – person Col meets is Ruth, an eleven-year-old evacuee from Germany. Sent to England as part of the Kindertransport, Ruth’s story speaks of the unthinkable challenges and trauma Jewish children and their families faced. Ruth’s resilience, her faith, becomes one of the novel’s most powerful touchstones. Her strength makes Col and the Guardians stronger:

“You honestly think we can still make it,” said Col, “after everything that you’ve just heard.”

“We might,” said Ruth.

“But it’s impossible.”

“No, no, it is just hard.”

And just like that, it was as though a single candle was lit inside him.

Col looked at Ruth – he looked at his Guardians, waiting for him. He took her hand and got to his feet. (The Midnight Guardians, p. 134).

By setting the novel early in the war, readers are aware that ‘there [will] be more raids to come, more damage and darkness and death’ (The Midnight Guardians, p. 398). As dark as the novel gets though, there is a sliver of light, the promise of a new day. There will always be Guardians at your side – whether you can see them or not.

In short: I adored this book. It reminded me of the films I loved as a child, the exhilarating, chaotic worlds of Labyrinth, Dark Crystal and The Princess Bride. Like those films, The Midnight Guardians is populated by characters who are clever and odd and staggeringly brave. It is rare to have a reading experience that evokes so many emotions, yet Ross Montgomery has written a book that is as funny as it is frightening, a book where real and fantastical threats converge to thrilling effect.

I can see a generation of children naming their pets after Col’s Guardians. Personally, I cannot wait to have more of Pendlebury, Mr Noakes and the (delightful, maddening) King of Rogues in this world.

*

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