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Once Upon a Fever by Angharad Walker

Set in an alternative London where strange illnesses are caused by overwhelming emotions, this tale of two very different sisters, both determined to find a cure for their sick mother, is imaginative and compelling. Ages 9+. Review originally published on the Just Imagine website.

Having grown up in the rural Isles, Sisters Ani and Payton Darke have lived in St. Jude’s Hospital in the city of Lundain ever since their mother became ill with water sickness – a mysterious disease with no known cure. Their father, famous methic Neel Darke, works tirelessly to find a cure while their mother is kept unconscious in a water chamber in the hospitals Inertia Ward, to try and slow the disease.

This is a world affected by strange fevers and illnesses. Ever since an event referred to as the Turn, extreme emotions have been making people sick. Patients experience physical manifestations of emotion, such as Spark Breath, which is caused by extreme anger and leads to the sufferer causing fires. The guilds of medicine and finance have risen to prominence, while guilds such as the wilders, who looked after the natural world, have disappeared. Consequentially, parks and areas of wilderness have been abandoned and closed off.

Neglected by their father as he focuses on his work, the sisters have grown up within the walls of the hospital. Calm and intelligent, Payton Darke has ambitions to be a blue-robed methic who longs to find a cure for her mother’s illness. However, when she touches blood, she appears to pass out, which will make becoming a methic impossible. Ani is passionate and adventurous, and is given medicine each day to keep her emotions in check for fear they will make her ill.

While exploring an abandoned part of the hospital, Ani comes across a young patient with golden fingers who is being kept locked away. When she discovers who has locked him away and why, Ani realises that she is in terrible danger, along with any other children whose emotions are causing symptoms. She must leave the shelter of St. Jude’s to seek answers in the city of Lundain. Outside of the confines of the hospital, Ani discovers an underworld of homeless children and black-market sales of natural ingredients. These are secretly purchased by financiers to be used by methics in sinister, covert experiments.

There are fair comparisons to be made between this book and Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials in terms of the rich world-building and some elements of the plot. Walker’s alternative London is a bleak, gothic setting with some delightful differences: carriages are pulled by deer, place names are similar but with a slight twist, such as Hyde Gardens. As Payton and Ani explore the world beyond St. Jude's, they discover that the world they thought they knew is not as black and white as it seems, particularly the work of the methics and the things they have been told by trusted adults.

The effects of widespread illness are reminiscent of the global pandemic, however, the idea for this book was conceived before the current health crisis. Far more interesting was the exploration of emotion and its power to make us physically ill. While the illnesses within the book are fantastical in nature, we know that suppressing strong emotions leads to mental and physical illness. This is explored when Ani finds people living within the abandoned wilderness of Hyde Gardens and is advised to feel her anger and express it, rather than ignore and medicate it as the methics have taught her to do. Through being allowed to let her emotions out and living in touch with nature, Ani’s illness begins to disappear.

This was an entertaining and well-written story, though several of the established plot points were not resolved, making this the first in a planned series. There are many interesting themes, such as loss, grief, friendship and the importance of the natural world to our well-being. There are also more subtle messages on the power of financial institutions on global infrastructure and the disappearing natural world, which may be more fully explored in later books as the world expands.

This is an excellent book for upper Key Stage 2 guided reading or as a class set text for English, there are plenty of opportunities for creative writing, given the excellent characterisation, fast-paced plot and vivid world-building. Comparisons between Lundain and London would also be interesting and a stimulus for further research. It also provides a great starting point for discussing the importance of emotional health and nature to support our mental and physical wellbeing.

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