Skulduggery Pleasant

Darkmouth by Shane Hegarty - Review

It's about to get Legendary all over Ireland

Sarah Webb on the first in a new fantasy series by the arts journalist, Shane Hegarty (review first published in the Irish Independent)

shane hegarty
shane hegarty

Shane Hegarty, a well-known arts journalist, made his own headlines in 2013 when news broke of his six-figure children's book deal following a frenzied auction at the Bologna Book Fair. His debut children's novel, Darkmouth, the book that caused all the excitement and cheque waving, is published next week. So does it live up to the hype?

The answer, in a word, is yes. I haven't been this excited about a fantasy adventure novel since I read Derek Landy's first Skulduggery Pleasant book in 2007. Interestingly, Hegarty and Landy share the same publishing house, HarperCollins, and the same publicist, Mary Byrne, one of the best in the business. (Not that Mary Byrne, although she is Irish!) If anyone can make Darkmouth a successful international brand, she can.

The book opens in the rather Dickensian, mist-swirling town of Darkmouth, the last 'Blighted Village' in Ireland that still has 'Legends' or monsters, terrifying man-eating creatures from myths and fables. Enter 12-year-old Finn, the youngest of generations of Legend Hunters. The future of Darkmouth rests on his shoulders, but there's one major problem: Finn is more likely to run away from a Minotaur rather than successfully shoot one with his Ghostbusters-nod Desiccator gun.

His father, the Rambo of Legend Hunters, is determined to change this and his son's gruelling training begins. But when the village is threatened with the worst attack of Legends ever encountered , will Finn rise to the challenge?

It's hard to believe that this is Hegarty's first children's book. His characters, including Finn's mysterious and plucky new friend, Emmie and the 'Hogboon' from the 'Infected Side', Broonie, are beautifully crafted and utterly believable. There are hilarious scenes and brilliant wise cracks that reminded me of Eoin Colfer's Artemis Fowl, balanced with gentle family scenes between Finn and his hilarious and hard-working dentist mum, a character who will have bedtime-story reading mums cheering out loud. Kudos to Hegarty for making an adult woman in a fantasy-adventure novel not only super smart but witty too. The difficult relationship between Finn and his ambitious and testosterone-driven father is also touching and real.

Darkmouth_Front_RGB2 (1)
Darkmouth_Front_RGB2 (1)

Hegarty's writing has an attractive lightness of touch which is spot on for the nine-plus age group and now and then his character's clever life observations make you sit up and take notice. It's slightly slow to get going, as Hegarty has a lot of world-building to do, but once the action kicks in, it's a rollercoaster of a read.

The story is enhanced by the magnificent black and white line drawings by James de la Rue. Illustrations in children's novels are making a comeback and it's a brave and savvy move, one that will make this book stand out in the international fantasy-adventure fray.

Book two in the series, Into the Infested Side, will be published in July, so readers don't have too long to wait for their second Darkmouth fix. With a cracking story, eye-catching cover design and catchy but simple tag line: 'It's about to get Legendary', I think the clever folk at HarperCollins may have another superstar writer on their hands. Watch out, Landy, there's a new kid in town!

Darkmouth; Shane Hegarty; HarperCollins, hdbk, 416pp, £9.99

Sarah Webb's new book for younger readers, The Songbird Café: Mollie Cinnamon is Not a Cupcake, will be published in March

Why the Future of Books is Safe with Our Hungry Young Readers

Me Reading to a Child
Me Reading to a Child

CHILDREN are still reading. That's a fact. Children and teenagers have not fallen into a technological black hole – they still want and need books.

Irish and UK sales figures for the first half of the year show a healthy rise in sales of novelty books (6pc), picture books (2pc) and, if you strip out the phenomena that is 'The Hunger Games', a whopping 12pc rise in sales of teenage fiction. Publishers are putting money behind children's books like never before and Dubray Books has just invested in 'Mad About Books', a full-colour guide to more than 400 books for children and teenagers.As a parent, a bookseller and a writer, this is all very reassuring. Yes, reading fluently has been proven to give children an advantage in all areas of their education, but books have a far more important role to play in young people's lives.

Books make children think – they make them engage their brain. Readers are not passive vessels, watching images flicker across a screen; they are recreating the story in their heads. They are fighting alongside Skulduggery Pleasant, lolloping across the hills with Sophie and the Big Friendly Giant.

Books are quiet. There are no bangs or crashes. While you are reading, virtual zombies do not point guns in your face and threaten to blow your brains out. Other gamers are not shouting obscenities into your ears through your headset. Yes, there is violence in fiction. What happens in 'The Hunger Games' is not pretty. Harry Potter has to battle pure evil. But there is cause and consequence. Lives are lost, but we care about those who are now dead. The reader can pause and reflect on the loss of characters who have become very real to them. Charlotte the spider, Dobby, Sirius Black. There is no 'kill/die', then step over the bodies.

Children learn from picture books without even knowing they are learning. My kids know all about the life-cycle of the butterfly from 'The Very Hungry Caterpillar'. They also learn more subtle things, like how a good plot is constructed, or how rhyme scheme works.

Books encourage empathy. While reading, children walk in other children's shoes. They travel to Africa with Michael Morpurgo and his Butterfly Lion; to the concentration camps of World War II with John Boyne ('The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas'); and to Ireland during the Famine with Marita Conlon-McKenna ('Under the Hawthorne Tree'). They learn how it feels to be hungry or terrified; to come up against enormous obstacles and to win.

Children's books feature plucky, brave characters, both male and female. Especially female. The characters in Judi Curtin's tales (aimed at pre-teen readers) stand up for themselves. My own character, Amy Green, is a kind and loyal friend. These girls are not covered in make-up or fake tan; they do not aspire to be 'famous', or if they do, it is for a talent they have worked hard at. In Anna Carey's new book, 'Rebecca Rocks', 14-year-old Rebecca and her friends have an all-girl rock band and work hard to improve their skills.

They do not speak like vacuous American teenagers. They are interested in boys, but their love lives do not define them. They call a boy out when he tries to show them porn on his mobile phone. In a world of premature sexualisation, Rebecca and her friends are strong role models for girls.

Teenage boys also need strong role models. I was at an event in the RDS in the spring with more than 800 screaming teenagers, at least half of them boys. What was making them so hysterical? An American writer called John Green and his brother, Hank. John's bestselling teenage book, 'The Fault in Our Stars', is about 16-year-old Hazel, who has thyroid cancer, and Augustus, a boy she meets at her cancer support group. It's real, touching and full of emotion. It's just the kind of novel I'd love my 19-year-old son to identify with. And guess what? Teenagers, both female and male, love it, including my son.

The future of books is in good hands.

'Mad About Books: The Dubray Guide to Children's Books', edited by Sarah Webb, is available for €2 from all Dubray bookshops or at http://www.dubraybooks.ie/

This article first appeared in the Irish Independent