I’m a big fan of Hot Key’s YA list (not least because they have me approved on NetGalley) and it’s rare that I read a Hot Key fantasy that I don’t like. It’s also rare that I’ll read a book set in Ireland where the Irish-ness of it doesn’t enhance the book in some way. That’s why I found it so surprising that I actually really strongly disliked this book, in almost every way. It seemed like it would be a really perfect book for me – dark in tone, magic, mogrifying, smoke-summoning, Driochta (although where did the a and the fada go? It’s Draíochta?) and a magical, bizarre, unfathomably personified house. And yet, I actually almost hated this book. I found myself resenting going back to it, and grumbling to myself when I wanted to read something, but realised that I should finish the book I was already on. I ended up reading two other books while gazing resentfully at the kindle sitting malevolently on my desk.
Luke Mountfathom knows he is special and odd. He is told so by everyone he knows. His parents are special and odd too – they are the keepers of the House of Mountfathom, a magnificent stately home where the wrong door could take you to a far away land, and strange animals appear to stalk the grounds at midnight. The house is his home – but it is also the headquarters of the Driochta, a magic-weaving group of poets, artists, politicians and activists charged with keeping the peace in Ireland. They have many powers – have mastered Mirror-Predicting and Smoke-Summoning and Storm-Breaching – and a final ability: that of Mogrifying; taking on a unique animal form.
But Luke’s idyllic existence at Mountfathom cannot last. Word reaches the House of protests across Ireland. There is a wish for independence, a rising discontent and scenes of violence that even the Driochta cannot control. In Dublin, death and disease is running rife in the tenements; a darkness is clogging the air, and is intent on staying. And when things quickly spin out of control for the Driochta, it is up to Luke, his cat Morrigan and his best friend Killian to worm out the heart of the evil in their land.
‘THE HOUSE OF MOUNTFATHOM is the kind of book that turned me into a reader in the first place. It has the same clever interweaving of history and fantasy that I so admired in Nigel McDowell’s previous books but is also filled with an utterly infectious kind of delight. The characters are so vivid and the world brims with the most gorgeous detail. And if this wasn’t enough, the language itself is a pure joy. Nigel McDowell has left an extraordinary legacy behind, something of the imagination and something of the soul.’
– Eimear McBride, multi-award-winning author of A GIRL IS A HALF-FORMED THING
‘Lyrical, ominous and utterly original, with a passionate sense of place and history, THE HOUSE OF MOUNTFATHOM is one of those books that pushes strange roots down into your mind.’
– Frances Hardinge, Costa Award-winning author of THE LIE TREE
Usually when I really hate a book, I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that I hated, or else there’s just a whole list of little things that irked me until I ended up having bad feelings toward the book.
However, in this case, I know exactly what it was that turned me off The House of Mountfathom. It was the writing style. Its choppy and truncated sentences never gave me a chance to get into the flow of the story, as I was always wondering what word was missing from the sentence to give it that incredibly staccato feel.
For some, it might have added to the looming sense of tension and doom in the book, but for me it really was just a constant frustration as I ground my teeth at every sentence. McDowell misses out non-crucial words in almost every sentence, both descriptive and dialogue, meaning that the book is still perfectly understandable, but really intensely frustrating.
This meant that essentially from the first page I was predisposed towards disliking the book, and any weaknesses in it I picked up on and resented even more. So when the main character, Luke, was paper-thin and showed no personality other than an aptitude for magic, that was frustrating. When Killian, presented in the blurb as his best friend, doesn’t so much as make an appearance until the second half of the book, I was frustrated again. When huge aspects of the book were left unexplained and impenetrable, I was actually quite upset.
There was so much potential in this book – a pair of young boys, saving a country gripped not only in the midst of political upheaval (the book covers the period of the Rising, the Free State, etc) but also in magical upheaval, as old races are dying out and new types of magic are being brought to the fore, and trying to forge a new way between the ancient order of the driochta and the necessity of adapting to their modern world. Plus faeries! Ash-dragons! Gyants! Boreen men!
Only… what is an ashdragon? Why are they so bad? It’s never explained in the book, and google says that an ashdragon is a scoop for clearing out fireplaces.
What’s a boreen man? I know what a boreen is. And what a man is. But together, they definitely don’t seem to describe the almost… naiad/dryad-like characters in the book.
Basically, this book left me with a whole lot of feelings of WTF and irritation, rather than the dark and entrancing fantasy I was expecting.