ELS librarian Samantha follows a one-eyed cat into the unknown in Anna Goodall’s debut novel Maggie Blue and the Dark World.
Maggie Blue is an outsider, both at home and at school. She lives with her eccentric aunt Esme, and has no friends other than the irascible Hoagy, a stray cat who can talk to her. When Maggie sees Ida, her foe from school, being taken through a window to another world by one of their teachers who has transformed into a wolf, she is determined to save her, whatever the cost. But the dark world is full of danger, a place where happiness is valued above all else, and Maggie discovers that her role is far more important than anyone could have guessed. A thrilling and gripping tale of friendship, courage and the power of being yourself.
The Witches meets The Dark Crystal in Anna Goodall’s dark and thoughtful debut. Maggie Blue is a different kind of hero. She is the kind of child that adults find it easy to ignore or dismiss – too quiet, too weird, too angry. She feels like a burden to her Aunt Esme, extra stress for her depressed mother, and an afterthought to her absent father. When she crosses into the Dark World in search of classmate Ida, she encounters a society that is shockingly cruel, the gilded palace of Sun City literally run on the stolen happiness of others. With the Great O, ‘the protector of nature and nature itself’, driven away, the land has become dark and unstable, fought over by people desperate to carve out their own part of it. Armed with a stolen ring of protection, Maggie suddenly becomes a person of interest. For the first time, she feels important. But like everything in the Dark World, it comes at a cost. Like Maggie, we are led to question: who gets to decide who somebody really is? And – more troublingly – what they can be used for?
As well as being an incisive critique of capitalism and human greed – especially the devastating impact it has on our environment – Maggie Blue and the Dark World is a fast-paced adventure story, full of humour, bravery and good old-fashioned wickedness. Miss Cane, Maggie’s new guidance teacher, is a beastly creation, the kind of smiling villain that will have readers recoiling. Eldrow, the mercurial ruler of Sun City, is an interesting character, a man who could so easily fit – and sadly thrive – in our own world. While there is little redemption for Cane and Eldrow, author Anna Goodall makes sure that other characters, such as Ida, Frank, Dan the Tree and Dot (Queen of West Minchen, snooker pro and possible bad guy), are multifaceted, each marked by their own pasts and driven by their own agendas. Aunt Esme is a particularly wonderful character, her busy social life only upstaged by her remarkable beehive hair. Her love for Maggie is incredibly touching; as wrenching as it is to leave Maggie at the end of the book, we know she has a proper home with Esme – even if she does have to sleep in the bathtub every now and then.
I have left the best character until last: Hoagy. The fat, grumpy, one-eyed talking cat who dominates the book’s front cover – beautifully illustrated by Sandra Dieckmann – and has now stalked his way into my heart. As much as Hoagy would hate being called a sidekick, he becomes a true friend to Maggie, helping to navigate the dangerous Dark World and fend off their many foes. His feline scorn and superiority are the source of much of the book’s humour – a total joy to anyone who has ever longed for their own grumpy cat to talk. As fun as it is, Maggie and Hoagy’s hard-won friendship is also the emotional core of the book. The trust they establish, and the sacrifices they make for each other, change their perceptions of themselves. They are not just one thing – whatever they are told they are or must be – they get to choose.
For all its dark magic and talking cats, Maggie Blue and the Dark World feels incredibly real. While aimed at middle-grade readers, I think it will be especially enjoyable for readers aged between 12 and 14. Through 12-year-old Maggie, the book skilfully explores that difficult in-between age, and how lonely and unfair and uncomfortable it can sometimes feel. By centring the experience of somebody typically overlooked, it shows readers that we are all worthy of adventures – exactly as we are.