Child is a street urchin given a choice; she can be gutted by the woman who claims to look after her or she can climb a wall into the local wizard’s garden and almost certainly die. Child’s a pragmatic, sensible sort, so she climbs the wall and… doesn’t die. Instead she finds out the truth about the Wizard, his home and what her future could hold. And later, much, much later, she finds the price that will be paid for all that.
“Gothic fairy tale” implies a lot about Porcelain ’s background and while it’s definitely an accurate description, the book also completely upends your expectations. The setting is more Dickensian than medieval and there are arguably steampunk trappings to it, especially given the nature of the Wizard’s work. He’s a porcelain maker, the only person in the area to know how to turn Porcelain into a living, moving thing. It’s a delicate, fascinating art and he’s completely entranced by it, until Child steps over his wall and completely refuses to admit he caught her trying to steal.
The friendship between the two lead characters is one of the book’s highlights. Child is utterly bare-faced in her lying and all the book’s comedy comes from her. Whether it’s the sight of a small urchin talking about her large family of brothers, all with swords, or her profound love for cakes, she’s one of the best written child characters I’ve read in years. Her moods are shifting and mercurial; her pain’s buried very deep, yet is still completely obvious; and her pathological inability to let things go is both sympathetic and, in the end, tragic. Also, crucially, she’s actually a child. She doesn’t know everything, she doesn’t get everything right and she’s completely innocent, even with all the petty crime. You don’t just like her, you care for her, almost instantly and if I read a better child heroine in anything this year I’ll honestly be very surprised.
The Porcelain on the other hand, is, or at least appears to be.
Chris Wildgoose’s art is extraordinary: clean lines and deep, rich colours all given space to move. The first half of the book especially is all seen from Child’s point of view and everything is massive, the house a precise, intricate home for it’s precise, intricate master. However, his work truly shines with the Porcelain. Gog and Magog, Uncle’s part-dog, part-tiger watchbeasts, are beautiful – endless power contained in geometric, sloping bodies. Similarly, the garden Uncle makes for Child later on is part merry-go-round part elegant statuary, each line perfect and beautiful and ever so slightly brittle. The Porcelain is at the heart of the book and the reveal of what it truly is will stay with you long after the book’s finished. No art comes without a price, and the price Uncle, and Child, pay is both unusual and unusually high.
This is a phenomenal book. Benjamin Read’s script is gripping, character-driven and constantly finds honest, real emotion at the heart of both Child and Uncle whilst Chris Wildgoose’s art makes the fantastic seem real, just like Uncle. A delicate, precise story with more beneath the surface than most, it’s a stunning debut from Improper Books and a must read. This book will win awards this year. Read it and see how richly it deserves them.