Of all of A.M. Howell's wonderful historical fiction books for children, this has to be my new favourite. With a compelling mystery that builds like the fire of Halley's comet and with evocative period detail, 'Mystery of the Night Watchers' is a dazzling read.
It is May 1910 and Hayley's comet is speeding closer towards Earth. Some people fear it. Some people are mesmerised by it. For Nancy it symbolises the sudden strangeness and mystery of her life, as she's uprooted to live in Bury St Edmund's with a grandfather she never knew about. Nancy and her sister are under strict instructions not to leave the peculiar Cupola house they find themselves in. Every night, though, Nancy's mother and grandfather creep up to the observatory at the top of the house. Are they watching the comet? Or are they observing something else? As the comet reaches its closest point to Earth, unravelling the mystery will change Nancy's world forever...
What I love most about 'Mystery of the Night Watchers' is A.M. Howell's brilliant way of laying down a series of 'breadcrumb' clues that build the intensity of the mystery, like fiery rocks trailing behind a comet. Each chapter burns with more questions, making for a compelling read, while Halley's comet only adds to the mysteriously tense atmosphere - almost mystical in its inclusion. A.M. Howell must know her home town of Bury St Edmund's so well because the period detail is her most vivid and charming yet. I was fascinated by people's varying reactions to the comet: the fear-mongering. the wonder and worry. I never knew that anti-comet pills were produced or that people had gas masks because they feared the comet would poison the air. All this only intensifies Nancy's investigations into the truth of her family, offering a unique, almost magical, historical backdrop.
Nancy herself is a brave and intelligent character; someone who is fearless to be different in an age when girls and women were still expected to know their place. If anything, Halley's comet marks the beginning of a change for women, with the Suffragette's message growing brighter and with the eve of the First World War approaching when women would take over jobs normally done by men. A.M. Howell cleverly points to this history without it distracting from Nancy's own personal journey of discovery.
'Mystery of the Night Watchers' is an intelligently written and compelling historical story for children. A.M Howell's best yet!
Thank you to Fritha Lindqvist and Usborne for my copy to review.