Mister Monday by Garth Nix. Read by Allan Corduner. This is the first in the latest of Garth Nix’s dark and detailed fantasy series. Our hero is Arthur Penhaligon*, aged 11 or 12, a middle school student in our own world. He survived the flu epidemic that killed his parents when he was first born, but was left severely asthmatic. He was adopted by his parents’ lab partner, a flu researcher, and her former rock star husband. This lengthy back story introduced here feels ponderous; in the book, the action takes off right away. It’s Arthur’s first day at a new school. He collapses with an asthma attack, and has what he thinks is a vision. A scraggly butler persuades a man in a wheelchair, Mister Monday, that giving Arthur the Key will fulfill the terms of the Will. Arthur will die any minute, he says, and when he does, Mister Monday will be able to take the Key back. And so Arthur is given a Key that looks rather like the minute hand of a clock. But when he wakes in the hospital, he still has the key and the book that later dropped on his head. Soon, there are strange dog-like men chasing him everywhere, asking for the key. A plague comes, affecting people connected with him and his school. A huge house that no one else can see is suddenly taking up several blocks near his house. The First Section of the Will leads Arthur to the House, having decided that Arthur is just the person to take possession of the Lower House back from the unfaithful trustee, Mister Monday. The Will is at the moment in the form of a jade frog, hiding in the throat of young Suzy Blue, who was once, centuries ago, a mortal child led to the House by the Piper. But there’s not much time for chatting. Monday’s Noon and a whole troupe of Fetches are after them.
Didja get all that? The setting of this book seems as intricately detailed as the gears of the clock whose hand the First Key resembles. There’s a whole lot of seven – the seven days of the week, as well as the seven sins (though this aspect has been less obvious in the following two books.) It’s a textbook Deist world, as the House and the Secondary Worlds, of which Earth is but one, were created by the Architect, who left millennia ago. She left the Will and appointed trustees to carry it out the purpose of the House: to observe and record only the events in the Secondary Realms. In her absence, the trustees divided the Will and imprisoned all the separate pieces so they could ignore it. In outward appearance, the House is run like a failing 19th century bureaucracy, with everyone wearing the clothes of that era. It’s a fascinating world, hitting amazingly well the fine line between giving enough details to make it feel like a real world without bogging the reader down. The brave but confused Arthur, the irrepressible Suzy Blue and the Will, determined but short on plan details, are characters to root for. And the plot won’t let you get off. Corduner (who also narrated The Book Thief) does an amazing job with unique and believable voices for each character. These books are keeping me sane through a broken toe, and I’m finding myself longing for more time to just listen.
*I was very curious about this name, sounding rather closely related to Arthur Pendragon. Apparently it’s an old Cornish name, Pen meaning top or hill and haligon meaning willow. If you can believe a sloppy search on Unca Google. http://www.surnamedb.com/surname.aspx?name=Penhaligon