Wednesday, July 27, 2016

These Dark Wings (Book 1 of the Ravenmaster Trilogy) by John Owen Theobald

It's October 1940 and Anna Cooper's journalist mother has just been killed when a bomb hit the bus she was riding on.  Now, Anna, 12, whose father drowned when she was 5, is sent to live with her Uncle Henry, a man she has never met.  Uncle Henry is a Warder at the Tower of London, called "Ravenmaster" by its residents because it is his job to take care of the Tower's ravens.  England has just begun the fight of its life against Hitler's Luftwaffe and according to legend, there must always be six ravens at the Tower of London.  If any of the ravens fly away or get lost, the monarchy will fall and Britain with it.

Uncle Henry begins teaching Anna how to take care of the ravens, a job she doesn't much care for at first, but then, living in a freezing cold chamber in the Bloody Chamber isn't exactly where Anna wants to be either.  But even as Anna begins plotting her escape from the Tower, so she can get on a ship to Canada where her best friend Flo was evacuated to, and stay with her for the duration, the first raven disappears.

Shortly after, Anna notices Warder Oakes, a man who gives her the creeps, secretly meeting a man at Traitors' Gate, an area usually filled with water, but dry at the moment.  Could he be meeting a German spy? Is it possible Oakes is planning to kill Churchill when he comes to visit the Tower?  Anna becomes more desperate to escape to Canada than ever.

But when her first attempt is unsuccessful, she realizes she needs an accomplice, someone who really knows their way around and she meets just the person she needs at the Tower school.  Like Anna, Timothy Squire is not well liked by their schoolmates, but they are a perfect match for each other. And Timothy can and does get her out of the Tower for excursions, but when Anna discovers why he leaves so often, she isn't sure about being friends anymore.

As the nightly bombing by the Luftwaffe continues and increases, more ravens begins to disappear and Anna determines to stay and to solve the mystery of what is happening to the birds.  But is it a sinister plot to destroy Britain's morale and make it easier for the Germans to invade Britain and is that why Hitler's Deputy F├╝hrer Rudolf Hess is at the Tower?

I can honestly say that I didn't know what to expect when I requested These Dark Wings from NetGalley.  I knew it was a WWII story, but didn't really read the blurb describing it.  I thought the dark wings referred to in the title were the wings of the Luftwaffe, so I was actually somewhat pleasantly surprised when I realized the setting was the Tower of London.  The Tower is one of my favorite places to visit in London, and thanks to a British father, I already knew about the legend of the ravens, begun in the time of Charles II.

But for readers who don't know about the legend, and for whom the Tower may not be familiar, not to worry.  There is a map and anything you need to know is explained within the story, so that young (or old) readers learn about things right along with Anna, a perfect protagonist for this tale.  She is a bit naive, and a desperately lonely character, always hungry and cold due to rationing, not unusual circumstances during the Blitz.  And Timothy Squire is the perfect foil for her.  Both characters are so realistically portrayed, though Uncle Henry, a few of the Tower's other resident's, with the exception of Oakes, remain less then fully realized, but for me, that didn't matter much.  On the other hand, through Anna's observations, the different personalities of the ravens does successfully come through.

The novel is written chronically, beginning on Friday, 4 October 1940 and ending on Monday, 1 September 1941, with a real cliffhanger.  The plot, the mysterious disappearance of the ravens, does get a little bogged down in all the information needed to set the stage for the novel, for instance, the layout of the Tower, the bombing of the docks and surrounding area, rationing, etc, but I assume that will not be so necessary in the next two books.

I very much enjoyed These Dark Wings and will probably read the next two installments of Anna's Tower of London adventures, assuming the author keeps her there or at least connected to it.  After all, the Tower of London, with its bloody history, is such a wonderfully dark and grim location for a wartime story.

Do read These Dark Wings if you are looking for something different in the area of WWII middle grade novels.

This book is recommended for readers age 9+
This book was an EARC received from NetGalley

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