The Black Book of Secrets, written by F.E. Higgins, is a British, middle-grade, dark fantasy book. Now when I say dark fantasy I don’t necessarily mean it in the traditional sense of the word. The book just so happens to be both dark and fantastical. Are the fantasy elements themselves dark? Nope, not at all. However, the story is rather grim and quite dark. I should also probably mention that the fantasy bits are more of a flavour enhancer rather than the main focal point of the book. With that awkward introduction out of the way, let’s get on with the review, which I will say now was a lovely read… in a morbid and twisted sort of way.
In a deviously, malevolent place, known simply as the City, a young, poor boy stretches out a meagre living by pick-pocketing to help fund his parents gin addiction. Desperate for more money, his ma and pa decide to sell the kid’s teeth. Bound to a chair, watching the shiny metal tool approach and then latch onto his tooth, Ludlow Fitch realises this isn’t the life he wants, nor the people he wants to live with any longer. Plot happenings happen and Fitch escapes, running away until he encounters a mysteriously debonair man named Joe Zibbidou, who will change his fate in a way the boy never thought possible.
The best part about this book is how unexpectedly consuming it was. I started reading with the intent to read a few pages as I waited for the last couple of minutes on my dryer to finish up. Forty-five minutes and sixty pages later my clothes had become lukewarm, sorta. As soon as the story starts, I found myself rooting for little Ludlow and eagerly anticipating what kind of hot mess he would find himself drowning in next. I don’t know about you guys, but that is one amazing feat of writing! Coupled with the dark and dreary atmosphere and a charming-as-fuck, enigmatic saviour–I could barely put the damn thing down.
The characters were the second-best feature. Joe Zibbidou is a pawnbroker of rather unique items, which is where that fantasy-flavour I mentioned earlier comes into play. The entire time I could feel myself going crazy with the anticipation of learning just who or what the hell he is. This air of suspense was absolutely perfect. It brings you to the edge as your curiosity just boils and boils. Yet, it’s not so stretched thin that all you feel is frustration. It’s actual a very enjoyable sort of frustration that you can only get from a fluid build of precisely placed tension. I had so many notions and possibilities of his true identity, yet nothing really prepared me for the inevitable reality.
Ludlow is the prime example of what redemption looks like, especially when you realise that luck is always in your own damned hands, flirting with fate like a coy little mistress. As we watch Ludlow recognize this simple, yet overly misinterpreted concept, specific themes come to light that end up giving this small, 270 page novel a beautiful layer of depth.
Some of the wisdom within this tale consists of:
- Kindness and compassion are rarely taken for what they are. Instead there’s this expectation that by showing said kindness, there’s a given that you’re taking responsibility for the well-being of that person. When you don’t act accordingly, you’re shown blame and hatred for their pre-existing misery, no matter how self-inflicted it is. Humanity’s greed.
- Sometimes we can recognise the dark path that we’re headed towards and “luck” to change this seemingly inevitable fate is always in our hands with the choices that we make. We need to make a stand and face our reflection in order to determine what type of person we want to be in the end.
- People are greedy by nature, if not for money then at the very least for other people to come into our lives to solve all of our problems for us, without having to take responsibility or without having to stand-up on our own.
- You can never judge a person by their appearance or demeanour. Kindness can be the mask of a monster, while madness can be veil of compassion.
There were a couple of questions that I felt were left up in the air. The answers were more vaguely implied rather than blatantly revealed. While my curiosity just wants to fricking know for sure, the reader inside me actually really appreciates this small air of mystery. I feel like it helps the book to leave a small imprint on your soul somewhere; a small trace that you read it and you will think about it once in a while if it fits your fancy.
Recommended for fans of British literature and middle-grade fantasy, in particular, but I think anyone who likes a good story will find this book pleasant.
4.25 teeth outta 5!