I love historical fiction and was thrilled to have the opportunity to have an early read of A. M. Howell’s latest book. In Mystery of the Night Watchers, Howell brings her home town of Bury St Edmunds to life in an evocative tale of a search for family truths.
May 1910 and the days prior to the passing of Halley’s Comet are providing much discussion, some are in fear of it, others are excited by it. Nancy’s mother has become fascinated with the comet but has also began acting increasingly strangely and Nancy is exceptionally taken aback when she finds herself and her sister, Violet, whisked away from their home in Leeds and taken to stay with a grandfather in Suffolk whom they have never met.
With no explanation, the girls are given very strict rules to abide by and are left feeling confused. Why are they here? Why are they not allowed out? Why are they not allowed up to the cupola to look out of the telescope? Why do her mother and grandfather keep sneaking around in the middle of the night? Nancy is determined to find out but to do so she will have to dig deep into her family’s past and she could endanger those most dear to her…
With strong themes of family, friendship and bullying, Mystery of the Night Watchers is a gripping mystery read set against the backdrop of the appearance of Halley’s Comet that easily had me hooked from first page to last. The short and snappy chapters slowly unravel the mystery that only gets deeper and more interesting as the story goes on. Readers are in for plenty of twists, turns and surprises and just when you think you’ve got it all figured out something unexpected happens.
Whilst the comet is a mystery in itself - very little was really understood about it at the time with people resorting to gas masks and anti-comet pills in order to survive the supposedly toxic gases that could be found in its tail - Nancy finds herself at the heart of a much bigger mystery that will see her uncovering secrets and lies from the past and terrible wrongs against her family.
Not one to stay quiet and lay low - which very much went against the societal norms for women in the early 1900’s -, Nancy is a feisty and fearless protagonist who has a clear sense of right and wrong and is determined to right the injustices from the past, even if it means breaking the rules and taking great risks. Just as the women in the suffragette movement were using their voices to invoke wider changes within society, Nancy finds herself on her own girl power mission, having to battle against a ruthless and power hungry mayor whose own ethics and morals have become somewhat compromised and who is threatening to add more hurt to her family. Raised by a mother who is part of the suffragette movement and a father who fights for truth and justice within the legal system, Nancy is more than up to the challenges she faces and this truth seeking, wrong-righting girl with big aspirations is a wonderful role model.
Like Emma Carroll - one of the best in the business when it comes to middle-grade historical fiction, Howell has the ability to transport the reader back in time and to bring alive a historical period and I admire her skill for being able to turn historical events into enthralling reads for children (and adults). Through beautiful atmospheric prose, readers find themselves immersed into the early 1900’s and it is easy to imagine walking along the cobbled streets and popping into the haberdashery, wine merchants and apothecary. In fact, you do not just have to imagine, you can take a walk around Bury St Edmunds and see some of the sights that feature in the story - a ‘tourist map’ is included at the start of the book and further information is provided at the end.
Luckily for readers, A. M. Howell’s books come round much more frequently than Halley’s Comet and her fourth book comes out in 2022.
Recommended for 9+.
With huge thanks to A. M. Howell and Usborne for the advanced reader copy that I received via NetGalley.