Updated: Feb 17
A truly special middle grade fantasy set during WW2. Ages 9+.
Once in a while, you read a book that you know is going to be special from the first page. The minute I began The Midnight Guardians, I was immersed: I could see each character and scene playing out in my mind and the writing was so captivating that I felt as though I was already reading a classic children's book. It combines two of my favourite genres: myth-based fantasy and historical fiction. Set against the backdrop of the Blitz, Ross Montgomery cleverly integrates the fantasty plot into the historical context, so that they are crucial to each other rather than incidental.
It is December 1940 and orphan Col is expecting his older sister, Rose, to come and visit him at their Aunt's for Christmas. It has been months since he was evacuated from London and he is desparately unhappy, so he is devastated to learn that Rose isn't coming. She has decided that she cannot possibly leave her post as a dispatch rider during air raids, which are nightly at this point in the war. After receiving the news, Col runs off to their old family cottage, where they used to spend Christmas with their father, and discovers that his old imaginary friends, The Midnight Guardians, are there waiting for him. He hasn't played with them in a long time and is shocked to see them in the flesh. The Guardians are a small knight called the King of Rogues, a badger called Mr. Noakes and a tiger called Pendlebury. They have escaped from the spirit world to warn him about an impending disaster and help him to prevent it.
The Midwinter King, who is the lord of all darkness, has been feeding off all the evil and terror in the land caused by the war and the Green Man, the lord of life and light who rises up to defeat him each spring, has grown weaker because of it. Soon, there will be a bombing raid which will destroy London and make the Midwinter King stronger than ever, leaving the whole world in permanent darkness. Col and the Midnight Guardians have just six days to get to London and rescue Rose. Along the way, they are joined by a German Jewish girl called Ruth, one of the children rescued by the Kindertransport mission. She is determined to get to London to seek out news of her parents who were left behind when she was brought to Britain. Both Ruth and Col have been traumatised in different ways and they each have to confront their emotions along their journey and learn to trust each other.
I loved this book for so many reasons, particularly Ross Montgomery's use of British pagan folklore as the basis for such a magical, high-stakes adventure. The parallel plots of the ancient metaphorical battle between light and dark, alongside the real, tangible brutality and darkness of the war and the Blitz, are perfectly aligned and make this book a fantastic resource for children studying that period of history. Real articles and information leaflets from the war are scattered throughout, adding detail and depth which further immerses the reader in the period. The bombing raid that is the climax of the book is based on a real raid that took place on the night of the 29th of December 1940 and there are some historical notes on this and other facts at the back of the book. Ruth's inclusion also provides opportunities to study the Kindertransport mission and to think about how the war affected children in so many different ways.
Despite the seriousness of the subject matter - war, grief, separation, trauma - this is also a delightfully warm and funny book. The Midnight Guardians themselves are amazing characters. Each of them has a distinct personality and power given to them by Col when he created them during his imaginative play and they continually bicker, providing a lot of genuine humour throughout the story. However, their personalities were not created out of thin air and we discover the reasons behind their existence, which I found to be very touching and profound.
This is a fast-paced adventure too with plenty of action. Col, Ruth and the Guardians encounter a number of creatures from the Spirit World on their journey, both good and bad, which add to the humour, but also provide genuinely chilling moments too. The Midwinter King is a sinister presence throughout the book and Ross Montgomery has created frightening villain.
The Midnight Guardians is a book about hope, friendship and finding the light in the darkest of times. I can see it becoming a classic in years to come and wouldn't be surprised to see it adapted at some point. It is packed with warmth, humour, horror, adventure, mythology and a huge dose of history which will encourage readers to delve more deeply into the period. It provides schools with an unusual but excellent stimulus and launching point for studying the Second World War. Most of all, it is a perfectly crafted story told exceptionally well and I absolutely adored it.
Get the book:
The Midnight Guardians by Ross Montgomery