The Ghosts of Magnificent Children
The year is 1848. It is a time when magic and ghosts exist. Four Magnificent Children are captured by Badblood’s Circus.
Theo can look into your eyes and reveal your secret thoughts, which come out of his mouth like a swarm of bees.
Ginny has a bird called Blue living inside her. Her ribs are woven together to form a birdcage. Blue perches on a swing made from one of her ribs.
And the Thought-reading Twins, Archie and Millie Luxbridge, have an extraordinary ability to read each other’s minds.
They become stars of the circus but are unaware that Badblood has a dark and secret plan.
One hundred years later the children’s ghosts appear on an island off the coast of Ireland where a boy called Rua befriends them. Rua discovers that a terrible fate awaits them and, in a desperate race against time, he struggles to learn how they may be saved.
I was looking forward to reading this book as I had seen some great reviews. Unusually and unwisely I also took note of the puff quotes, which were written by authors I admire.
The premise was promising: four children with special abilities are kidnapped and set to work in a travelling circus. They are mistreated, taken to Ireland and eventually to an island off the coast of Ireland. There they are killed and one hundred years later “awaken” to haunt the islanders, who have been expecting this event and have planned for it by preparing to, um, kill the dead children.
The story is imaginative. There are some nice substories, but they don’t hang together well. In particular, the second half of the book felt a little disjointed and the story jumped from place to place without my knowing how it got there. The chapters are structured well, although the endings weren't all picked up on again.
The characters are interesting, but not explored in any depth. I’m not even clear what Millie and Archie did in their circus act – I know what their abilities are, but their act is not explained. It is hard to understand the motivations of some of the adults, the baddies in particular, although the “good” couple in the later story, Agatha and Thomas, are depicted well, with their feelings and past written clearly and sensitively. Agatha is my favourite character. Rua, the teenager who tries to help the children and has beliefs at odds with his father’s, is also a strong character.
There are some exciting passages – when the children are in the circus and when they escape – and there are some nice twists and turns. There are some good creepy bits, which would have had twelve-year-old me hiding under the covers, and also a couple of quite gruesome and scary parts.
Overall, though, I think this book needed another darn good edit for it to meet my expectations. Some of the writing is clunky, with short sentences where they could have been joined to make longer, better flowing ones, and some long sentences that would benefit from separating into shorter ones. There is a lot of unnecessary description – every window looked through, every cup drunk from, every door knocker is given the full treatment. If there was bright moonlight we were told it was shining, rather than being shown it glinting on glass.* There are endless similes, some of which read nicely but actually make little sense. Take the sentence in the blurb: “Theo can look into your eyes and reveal your secret thoughts, which come out of his mouth like a swarm of bees” – what does that actually mean?
It is a fantasy book but it is also a historical story, and the research could have been better. The first part of the book is set in 1848. The term “smarty pants” was first used in 1861; Manchester was known as Cottonopolis, but not until the 1850s (or even 1870?); bees don’t get drunk on honey; swan beaks are more likely to be orange/red than yellow; the term liger wasn’t used until 1930; the first use of the term “department store” was in 1887; the T-shirt wasn’t invented until the early 1900s and the term wasn’t used until 1920. Additionally, as far as I know, red moons don’t occur over several days, and in any case there wasn’t one in 1948. Yes, I know this is a story, but accuracy is still important. (I’m happy to amend if I’ve got any of that wrong.)
And a character called Ginny Potter ... was that wise?
I think this book would be more enjoyable being read aloud at a certain pace, than it is to read it to oneself. It is certainly worth reading, but I feel it could be so much better.
*The oft quoted advice from Anton Chekov (1860–1904): “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
Editorial Input & Design
I would have suggested the author do another revision before the ms went to editing, with the request that a lot of the telling was changed into showing; facts were checked (such as how long does it take to walk up a mountain); and the text made to flow better, with less description and less repetition. That would have been my suggestion, for the author to follow or not as she wished. But I would have made the suggestion in the absolute belief that the author can write and it is a book worth publishing.
The book has clearly been edited, but I think it could do with another run through. Some of the writing is quite clunky, there is a fair amount of repetition, and there is incorrect and inconsistent use of hyphens. There is an overuse of people’s names in dialogue. There are some historical inaccuracies (the author’s responsibility but they should be pointed out). Siamese Twins doesn’t need a capital T; Jack Russell Terrier doesn’t need a capital T. People stand up when they have already been walking around. You can’t see the colour of a person’s eyes when it is dark. There is a proliferation of velvet – velvet in boxes, velvet curtains, velvet ribbons. Questions should have been asked about why certain things happen. Spelling should be consistent. There are a few proofreading errors in addition to the inconsistencies, and a couple of small words missing – nothing major.
Cover: Atmospheric. I’m not sure why there is a man standing on a ball.
Internal design: Clean, apart from a few widows and orphans, which could have been edited out. Each chapter has a little profile of a performing elephant. This isn’t entirely appropriate, since there is only one mention of an elephant and it isn’t performing. Also, the second part of the book isn’t set in the circus. I would have used a small graphic of a big top for the first part of the book, and one of, say, a tombstone for the second part.
Book Clubs & Reviews
Maybe it would be a good book for a children’s book club – there are plenty of moral issues that could be discussed, as well as fun things such as what special ability you’d like to have. It could be an adult book club choice, leading to discussion on “freak shows”, Victorian England, exploitation of children, religion, grief.
What others are saying: Amazon UK readers give it four-and-a-half stars (2 reviewers); Goodreads readers give it 4 stars (2 ratings).
I am out on a limb ...
Mary Esther Judy of Fallen Star Stories says: “There is an eerie, yet beautiful quality to the writing, that begs the reader to both put the book down and read on at the same time. ... It is filled with texture and nuance that consumes the reader and takes them completely into the story. Vivid, lyrical and completely ingenious, this is a book that will haunt your dreams for a long time to come. A truly magnificent debut!”
Dean Kealy on Wee Bit Wordy says: “To say I loved this book would be a bit of an understatement. I devoured it.”
Buy & Author
Published by Poolbeg and available direct from their website www.poolbeg.com
Kenny’s, Galway, Ireland (worldwide free shipping)
Connect with the author:
Links of interest:
Mary McCauley Interview with the author
Lady Nicci How I Write series
The Gloss Interview with the author
writing.ie Interview with the author