Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Book Review: The Dark Flight Down by Marcus Sedgwick

Warning: Mild spoilers ahead

Marcus Sedgwick had left several questions unanswered and quite a few plot threads dangling at the end of The Book of Dead Days. In the sequel, The Dark Flight Down, Sedgwick begins where the previous book left off and continues the creepy and melodramatic tale.

The tale continues to unfold in the decaying and fetid city with its squalor and meanness now hidden under a blanket of snow. It’s only a few days since the death of Boy's master, the magician Valerian, and Boy now has a new master: Valerian's Friend, the scientist Kepler. Kepler, wary of Willow's sharp intelligence, has separated her from Boy and placed her in an orphanage. The two however meet in a graveyard (Sedgwick's morbid fascination with death and graves continues in this book too) at funeral of the manager of Korp's Theater. There, Boy and Willow make plans to escape from Kepler and begin a new life together. But it is not to be. Kepler sends Boy on an errand to Valerian and Boy's former home, the Yellow House, to retrieve a lens. There he is captured by the Imperial soldiers and thrown in the dungeons below the palace of the mad Emperor Frederick. In the dank dungeons, Boy realizes there is another person imprisoned somewhere in the darkness when he hears a familiar song "So dance, my dears, dance, / Before you take the dark flight down."

Boy eventually learns that Frederick, who is single, has decided that he wants to become immortal so that he can rule forever without needing an heir. Both Frederick and his right-hand man, the cunning and power-hungry, Maxim are convinced that the boy possesses the secret of the Book of Dead Days, which foretells the future and believe that it might show a way for the aged Frederick to gain immortality. Boy has been captured on Maxim's orders. Little do the Emperor and Maxim know that the book is now in the hands of Kepler.

Boy soon finds that the situation is even murkier than it appears to be. The mysterious predator Phantom kills again and in the dungeons Boy discovers the literal terror hidden at the end of “the dark flight down.” Boy finds that the Phantom is housed in the Dungeons below Frederick's palace and that the creature drinks the blood of its victims. Worse, it seems to be controlled by Maxim. Boy meanwhile, in a meeting with the Emperor, catches his fancy and is taken from the dungeons and is transported to a world of immense wealth and splendor. But underneath the gilt Frederick's world is cruel and tinged with madness. Intrigues are aplenty as are closely held secrets, and terror is merely a step away. A desperate Maxim soon threatens to throw Boy to the Phantom if the Boy refuses to divulge any information about the Book of Dead Days. But Boy is determined to get to the book for himself so that he can find his real name and know who his parents were.

In a world full of Machiavellian machinations and treason, Boy survives on his determination and on the strong hope of meeting Willow again. And it is not before long that the resourceful Willow teams up with Kepler and the two insinuate themselves into the palace to attempt to rescue Boy.

Events, situations and the palace soon come to a head and the novel heads for a spectacular and chilling climax. The Book of Dead Days is opened and Boy learns the horrific truth behind the Phantom and the Emperor Frederick and learns the connection they both have to his past.

Like The Book of Dead Days, and in many more ways, The Dark Flight Down is more a mystery (with a hint of magic to the story) than a fantasy. In The Book of Dead Days the mystery was about how Valerian would escape a Faustian bargain and the role Boy would play in the escape. Here, in The Dark Flight Down, the mystery is about Boy's true identity. The titular Book of Dead Days merely serves as a thread that unravels the tale. Sedgwick, like in the prequel to this book, casts his story neatly in Gothic mold. The thrills and horrors are however human and psychological rather than the fantastic.

Sedgwick neatly wraps up Boy's story. All questions are answered: What were the reasons for Valerian's sacrifice? Why is Kepler interested in Boy? What about the relationship developing between Boy and Willow? What is the continuing significance of the Book of Dead Days? What will happen to the Book of Dead Days? Who is the Phantom? What is the Phantom's connection with Boy? The identity of the Phantom comes as a surprise as does the knowledge about the Boy's connection to the Emperor and the Phantom.

The Dark Flight Down, like the The Book of Dead Days, is very atmospheric and compared to it very textured and intricately and tautly plotted. Readers however be warned: the book doesn't stand on its own and you need to be familiar with the previous book to understand and enjoy this sequel. The Dark Flight Down is a wonderfully written tale -- Sedgwick's prose is tight and sparse and as bleak as the cold city that the book describes. The tale with its obscure revelations, intrigue, treachery, also superbly evokes a sense of inevitable horror and doom. And underneath all the madness and the terror of The Dark Flight Down Sedgwick also conveys the strength and resourcefulness of Boy and Willow and their bond that just might be their redemption from the past.

My review of The Book of Dead Days.

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