A dark middle grade fantasy with a great cat companion!
Book: Maggie Blue and the Dark World by Anna Goodall
Publication date: 14th October 2021
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Guppy Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence and injury, including of animals; bullying; child abuse and neglect; mental illness of a parent.
Maggie Blue, strong-willed and isolated, sees her enemy from school taken through a window to a parallel world by one of their teachers and determines to follow, whatever the cost. With the help of irascible cat, Hoagy, they discover a world where happiness is being stolen – and they must do everything they can not to be caught up in its web of destruction.
Maggie Blue is an outsider, both at home and at school. She lives with her eccentric aunt Esme, and has no friends other than the irascible Hoagy, a stray cat who can talk to her. Maggie discovers that her role is far more important than anyone could have guessed.
This is not your average middle grade portal fantasy: it’s darker in both setting and tone, and can be an uncomfortable read in some places. Maggie is not a wide-eyed, heroic kid – she’s had a brutal childhood, and can be downright horrible at times (which is understandable, but doesn’t make her very likeable). The story takes place in both our world and a magical world, and the story never shies away from showing the bleakness of either, whether that’s the specific nastiness of modern day bullying, or the seductive awfulness of magical coercion and dictatorship. It made for a bit of an odd read for me, as someone who loves fantasy, to have the portal world be just as awful, if not more, than the real world; I never got a sense of joy while reading. It’s extremely effective at dealing with the issues it covers, but it definitely wasn’t the magical adventure I was expecting from the cover and blurb!
When I was younger, one of my favourite books was Chris Wooding’s Poison, and I recently really enjoyed Ross Montgomery’s The Chimeseekers, so I’m not completely averse to the darker side of kids’ fiction, but I think that the difference here is that honestly, I didn’t quite get how the fantasy all fit together with the rest of it. It’s very readable, and the style is even beautiful, but the world-building is a tad opaque – I can’t really explain much about the magic or what Maggie was fighting against. I actually felt that the contemporary half of the story was much stronger in characterisation and action than the fantasy half; Maggie’s journey of self-discovery didn’t actually need her to do anything magical at all. She has some fabulously well written character moments in the real world, though, particularly in her achingly sad phone calls with her mother, and I was intrigued by her conflicted relationship with her main bully, Ida. There’s a lot of nuance in the human characters, and if I were more of a reader of contemporary, issue-tackling middle grade, I think I’d have been raving about this one.
I was tempted to read this largely because of Maggie’s cat companion, the ornery, one-eyed Hoagy – you know a talking cat is always going to be enough to sell me on a book! He did end up being my favourite part of the whole book, and his voice is so well done; I loved the mix of haughtiness and affection he felt for Maggie, though I perhaps would have liked him to be more of a companion, as he spends much of the book at odds with Maggie and doesn’t take as prominent a role as the cover implies. One thing that did bother me about the cat depiction in the book, though, was Hoagy’s opinion that black cats are all in the pay of witches, which is stated with derision. There’s enough hatred for black cats in the world – superstition means they’re most at risk of being abandoned, not to mention abused – and there is absolutely no need to be perpetuating this in modern kids’ fiction.
Overall, this didn’t quite hit my current personal preferences for middle grade, being a bit too bleak and cynical, but I think it will be a real hit with the older end of the age range or younger teens who find other portal fantasy a little bit twee. I’d really recommend it for fans of Roald Dahl’s darker works or The Magic Place, that kind of fantasy that tackles real-world issues in a hard-hitting way – but for me personally, I think it gets three out of five cats.