Mystery of the Night Watchers is an engrossing story of secrets, lies, sisters and a desire for justice and truth set against the back drop of a global historical event.
Set in 1910 in the days before Halley’s Comet’s appearance there is a mix of excitement, speculation, fear and anticipation spreading throughout Edwardian England. Fuelled by dramatic newspaper headlines there are rumours and conflicting opinions circulating with some profiteering from the uncertainty.
Against this dramatic backdrop twelve year old Nancy has her own problems. For several days her mother has been behaving differently to normal and Nancy is worried about what this may mean. Her worries prove to have been well founded when on the way to school one morning her mother shepherds Nancy and her little sister, Violet to the station instead. Uprooted from her home in Leeds and separated from her stepfather Nancy finds herself in a town in Suffolk with a grandfather she thought was dead. The explanation that her grandfather is unwell and as an enthusiastic astronomer needs assistance viewing the comet is quickly proved incorrect. Nancy’s mother tells the sisters that must stay inside, draw the curtains and not be seen and subsequently starts creeping out during the night with her grandfather. As the mysteries and secrets mount Nancy grows steadily more curious and her attempts to discover the truth put the whole family in danger.
A M Howell builds up the tension well in this enjoyable story. From the opening lines the reader is made aware that all is not well and gradually alongside Nancy we discover little by little that much has been kept secret over the years. I quickly warmed to Nancy. She is in some ways a product of her time; obedient and loyal to her parents but intelligent and curious too so that her development into a brave and resourceful protagonist feels both believable and admirable. Her strong sense of social justice and support for the suffragist movement add an extra dimension to her character and an important historical context.
Although Nancy takes a lead role in the adventure her relationship to the other characters is key to the story. Her new friend, Burch, the delivery boy, helps Nancy and Violet as they work together to try to discover the truth. The development in this friendship is paralleled by the growing bond between Nancy and her grandfather. There is kindness, loyalty, bravery and perseverance running through this absorbing adventure and this creates a rewarding reading experience. As an elder sister myself I particularly enjoyed the bond between Nancy and Violet and how this altered as the story progressed.
There are several interesting themes explored by A M Howell. The presentation and interpretation of the news and the manner in which fear and suspicion is whipped up among the population has a resonance today. It would make an excellent starting point for discussions on the subject of Facts Matter and the need for trustworthy sources of information. The idea of truth and whether it is ever right to lie in order to protect someone, particularly children, is key to this story in some ways and would give young readers something to think about or discuss in the classroom. Finally, without giving away too much of the plot, we see in the villain of the piece how the abuse of power can cause misery and hardship for many.
Mystery of the Night Watchers is the sort of book that could convert children to historical fiction, it is exciting, brimming with historical detail that adds to its appeal yet with characters and themes that are relevant today. I must also mention the beautiful cover illustration by Saara Söderlund, her motifs at the start of each chapter and of course the map. Every good story needs a map! This has been promoted as perfect for lovers of novels by Emma Carroll and I am inclined to agree. Judith Eagle’s The Pear Affair although set later in time is another great mystery story that you may also like to try.
I should like to thank the publishers, Usborne and Fritha Lindqvist for my review copy. Mystery of the Night Watchers was published on 8th July. There is a range of links to resources and information about Edwardian times, Halley’s Comet and other aspects of life featured in the book available on the Usborne website.