Let’s get straight down to things…
Sometimes a book grabs you by the throat right from the start. It doesn’t beat around the bush setting the scene, introducing and building characters or creating a mood. It hits you with its killer hook first and then deals with all that stuff later.
That’s how I felt about Ashley Meggitt’s debut novel The Dark Chorus with a couple of pages.
But that’s not to say there isn’t all that other stuff! Oh no, it’s just that it sinks its claws into you right from the get-go with its intriguing and unusual premise:
The thirteen-year-old unnamed protagonist, known only as The Boy can see souls, and he can tell which ones are pure and which ones are… tainted. Aided by a pair of damaged teenagers, the angry, protective Makka and the abused but kindly Vee, The Boy sets out on a quest to free the soul of his recently departed mother, purge those who would do harm to him and his friends and restore a fractured divine entity to its heavenly status.
What follows is a sometimes very dark romp through the streets and derelict buildings of North London which instantly put me in mind of Neil Gaiman’s urban fantasy Neverwhere. In fact, The Dark Chorus reminded me of a few other things, such as Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Philip Pulman’s His Dark Materials series, a touch of Harry Potter‘s search for the Horcruxes and even, in the opening chapters, the gritty 1979 Borstal drama, Scum.
That’s not to say The Dark Chorus isn’t its own story. Those influences are never glaring or obvious and Ashley Meggitt presents a very unique, very dark – often very violent – but also very touching adventure. The main players are all well-drawn, and the slow drip of character development as the story progresses means that, while difficult to like when first introduced, one comes to care about them. For example, Makka, when we first meet him seems an archetypal angry-at-the-world teenage thug, but his hard exterior is slowly stripped away revealing a far more vulnerable and kinder young man than we were first led to believe he was.
As well as the human characters, what also struck me was how Meggitt uses his landscape extremely effectively. I don’t claim to be an expert on the suburbs of north London, but I have spent a fair amount of time there with work and visiting friends and family, and as well as describing the area extremely well, Meggitt has also captured the feeling of that area: the glamorous high streets around Camden, Holborn, Kings Cross and Euston, which conceal, only feet from the shining tower blocks and clean streets, a seedy backstreet underworld of disused shops, formerly grand edifices which are now ice-cold squats and grubby pubs patronised by some very nasty denizens – I really felt like I was there. The feeling of menace one gets when you accidentally wander from the tourist-friendly areas was palpable and I really got a sense of the danger our trio were often in.
What’s also fascinating about The Dark Chorus is its ambiguity over the existence of the supernatural. The Boy believes that a higher power is at work and guiding his hand. His psychiatrist Dr Eve Rhodes, who is aiding the police as they follow his trail of destruction, always one step behind, does not. Vee and Makka fall somewhere in between. Yet all of them take a journey into understanding and accepting the viewpoints of each other and we, the reader are left wondering if the supernatural elements are real, or if The Boy is just deluded. It is an oft-trod conflict which drove the relationships in The X-Files and, more recently, Peter Laws’ Matt Hunter series (the latest instalment of which we reviewed earlier this year).
In the long run, whether the supernatural elements are real or imagined are not what’s important, but how the characters deal with the obstacles they come up against in different ways, based on such beliefs, and how their experiences guide their actions and ultimately change who they are. And boy, do these characters go through a lot of changes!
If you are looking for a decent urban fantasy with a gritty edge (and at times, be warned, The Dark Chorus does get very gritty, with some passages that made me wince), not unlike, say Neil Gaiman or Clive Barker, then you could do a lot worse than check this out. As a debut novel, it is a triumph; Meggitt’s poetic, descriptive style adds a gentle beauty and humour to the grim, often gory events, and he writes with the confidence of a long-established best selling author.
About The Author
Ashley Meggitt lives near Cambridge, UK, with his wife Jane. He left school to join a psychedelic rock band when he realised that sex, drugs, and rock and roll was a thing. Subsequently, he went back to education and became head of IT for a Cambridge University College. In recent years Ashley has retrained in psychology and is now an associate lecturer in sports psychology. He is studying for his PhD. He also holds an MA in Creative Writing. The Dark Chorus is his debut novel.
Visit his website here: www.ashleymeggitt.com
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