Wednesday, 5 December 2012

Review: Twelve Minutes to Midnight

I don't know if I mentioned this (maybe I did, once or twice. Or ten times. Or twenty. Are you sick of it yet?) but I interviewed Philip Pullman for Litro last week. I talked to him about fairy tales and storytelling and it was one of the greatest things that has ever happened to me. I am still not over it. I may never be over it.

Before he got onto fairy tales, though, Pullman used to write pastiche Victorian teen fiction (possibly my favourite thing he's done - Sally Lockheart is my hero). And, in a total coincidence, pastiche Victorian children's fiction is the topic of my review for today.

I hope you all appreciated that segue.

Now, I like children's fiction. I would say that one day I want to write it, except that I already do. So I'll go with: one day I want to publish what I've written, and be poor and happy and probably live in a garret. Ambitions, eh?

Anyway, Christopher Edge's Twelve Minutes to Midnight is swag I picked up from a past internship at the lovely Nosy Crow. I chose it because its blurb promised Victorian penny dreadful magazines, and if there is one thing I love in this world, is it Victorian pulp fiction. I cannot tell you how happy I am that this seems to be a very popular topic at the moment - I've actually just reviewed what is probably Twelve Minutes to Midnight's grown-up brother, Stephen Gallagher's The Kingdom of Bones, and very good it was too. So I came to Twelve Minutes to Midnight with high expectations and a lot of prior form. Happily, the book did not disappoint.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight's plot (or rather, the basics of its plot, I could be here all day) is as follows: it's London, 1899, and at twelve minutes to midnight each night all of the inhabitants of Bedlam madhouse get up and start scribbling frantically on whatever surface they can find. What they write seems crazy to the Victorians who read it, but to anyone from 2012 it's immediately recognisable as events from the twentieth century - our past, but their future. What can it mean? How can it be stopped? And what does the MYSTERIOUS SPIDER LADY OF SOUTH KENSINGTON (yes, really) have to do with it all?

Promising premise, right?

Although much lighter on graphic sex, murder and mutilation than The Kingdom of Bones (for reasons that should be obvious), Twelve Minutes to Midnight goes big where it matters. Christopher Edge does not stint on his sensational plot twists. In 250 short pages he gives us insanity, mysterious death, crazy science, evil women in black capes, hallucinations, toothless crones, madhouses, H. G. Wells, terrifying futures and deadly African spiders. You know a book is going to go to good places when the villain's past history is described thusly:
Sir William died on the eve of her wedding to Lord Cambridge. Some say it was the shock of his passing that sent Lady Cambridge's mother into the arms of madness. But of course, Lady Cambridge has had her own tragedy to bear since then. The death of her husband, Lord Cambridge, on expedition to Africa - poisoned by the very spiders they had both gone there to study.
Now THAT is how to have a good time with a story.

The heroine of this marvellous piece of excess, Penny Treadwell, is, of course, totally ridiculous herself. She is a twelve year old Wunderkind who is secretly the UK's foremost writer of fiction, a crack detective, and a dab hand with scientific implements. Seriously. At one point an adult character remarks on her handiness with a pipette and Penelope (aged twelve) responds, "I've always been interested in science." I love this.

Penny (although at times her over-described beauty gets a bit dull) is a great children's heroine. She's the perfect mixture of exotic wish-fulfilment and tiresome reality. Every kid knows that they could be as effective as the adults around them given half the chance, and Penny is the embodiment of this. She uses the adults in her life like convenient glove-puppets to further her own amazingly cool and ruthless agenda. But despite all that, she's still a kid, and that means that she's still continuously being brought up short by officious grown-ups who tell her she can't go in there and she can't do that.

She circumvents them, of course, in ways that are intrepid and incredibly unlikely, and the plot gets insanely and delightfully daft, with one sensational twist every two pages. I did take slight issue with the fact that so many of said twists have something to do with spiders (for about two days after I finished Twelve Minutes to Midnight I kept imagining that there were things crawling all over me, which was not pleasant), but nevertheless I read the whole book in a state of great delight, shouting "YAY!" and making my poor boyfriend listen to long and exciting extracts from it.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight may not be as slick and super-sophisticated as the Sally Lockheart books, but it nevertheless holds its end up well. It's a hammer-punch of fun, and it comes from a writer who obviously knows his late-Victorian fiction. There are some especially fab cameos from Real Victorian Writers. So many books are doing this at the moment, and I am a sucker for it EVERY TIME, but I think in this case they work particularly well.

Twelve Minutes to Midnight is a mad, silly, wild ride. I enjoyed it greatly, and that's the mark of a good children's book: that it should delight anyone who reads it, no matter how much older they are than its apparent target audience.

A very satisfactory read.

3.5 stars.

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