I’ve been a huge fan of Darren’s writing since his debut Scavengers reframed the landscape of Middle Grade writing for me. His writing is like a rich tapestry that transports us into deeply imagined worlds but also challenging and introspective, unflinchingly so, on the emotional landscape of children, particularly boys as they navigate the changing world around them.
Not simply content with sticking to one style or topic Darren pours his heart into each novel with a dash of ‘edge of wonder’ in each novel, whether it be the paranoid apocalyptic feels of Scavengers to the near contemporary Sci-Fi thriller of The Memory Thieves and here a contemporary fantasy that is stunning in its study of grief, quiet courage and spirit.
Furthermoor, is deeply brilliant, brutal in places, yes, but beautiful in the way Darren drives down into the heart of grief, and self sabotage as he weaves us through the ways Bren comes back to life when his world is crumbling around him.
Spoiler Free Review. Content Warning: Bullying, mild horror, RTC, sibling loss.
Bren was once a well liked boy but he has retreated into himself, avoided his friends and become the target of choice for Shaun, the school bully after the traumatic loss of his sister in a car crash splinters his family.
Bren takes solace in a fantasy world he created with his sister in life, he can control through his watch and where his sister is still alive. To the outside world he looks asleep or ‘zoned out’ but really he is in the rich world of Furthermoor where he can speak to the only person who really is concerned about Bren to talk to him, and he doesn’t want to let that go.
So when the crows invade his world bringing with him their master who wants to destroy everything, and Shaun traps Bren in a frozen abandoned house, Bren must find the courage to save Furthermoor and himself.
BRAVERY isn’t always BIG and LOUD, it can be quiet too
The exploration of grief is heartbreaking at points but powerful in its honesty. There have been books that have explored grief at this age beautifully, but this stands strong through the lens of a quiet male experience and the honesty observing how Bren’s parents have retreating into their own grief, with his father’s anxious breakdown to his mother ‘running away’ into her work.
It is a sad reality that childrens grief often isn’t treated as seriously as that of grown ups, I remember losing my maternal grandfather at Bren’s age, and not long after being sternly told to ‘snap yourself together and don’t upset your mum’ by my paternal grandmother who wanted me to hide my grief so my mum could heal. I think Bren feels that sentiment too his father’s anxiety is palpable so he tries not to worry him, and his mother just isn’t there to act on his pain, and that suits because it would mean confronting her grief too.
But if we don’t at least acknowledge and journey through grief to that last stage of loss, we fester, and that is what is happening to Bren as crows and a Crowlike villain invade his world and threaten its very existence. The Twist that emerges from this is simply perfection and a deep and important point for readers to consider in their own lives but NO SPOILERS!!.
Darren is so clever in weaving so readers can relate on different levels to each of his male protagonists, and to make ‘different’ yet engaging and authentic tales about boys that peel back the toxic expectations and stereotypes of young masculinity making boys rounded, flawed but deep within willing to be more. In this way I find Darren the ‘King’ and Jennifer Killick the ‘Queen’ of MG tales about real modern boys and deeply needed.
Bren is quiet, he’s not the traditional male stereotypes of ‘courageous’ and so considers himself weak and cowardly. He knows he is hiding from the awful parts and pain of his real life by retreating into Furthermoor and doesn’t acknowledge the strengths he has because he frames himself within both the grief and what others perceive as ‘strong male’.
It is only through the pressure of Cary, Shaun, the collapse of Furthermoor that Bren will find just how courage can be quiet too. that there are many shades and flavours of not only courage but masculinity, and every one is valid, but not necessarily healthy. The action that brings Furthermoor into deep crisis & ultimate showdown is provoked by two other boys who are equally and powerfully not a simple mess of stereotypes.
Cary looks like the cool anime new kid, he has swagger, makes everyone laugh and want to be his friend, and has the guts to stand up to the bully when he comes to mark the school as his territory. But we see how this is a sort of front.
Underneath Cary has social insecurities thanks to moving so much, and he is acting how he wished he had acted to previous bullies; but realising and more importantly acknowledging this causes blowback to Bren he feels guilt and wants to help Bren stand up for himself too. Cary can see Bren is in pain and wants not only friendship, but to support and raise him up, even if Bren is reluctant to care about anyone or anything ever again. This is beautiful and testament to the complexity and richness of male friendship.
Shaun is a bully and could be the identikit copy & paste school bully, but Darren resists, he adds a little richness to Shaun because there is hope for every young boy to overcome, just like Bren is undergoing. Shaun is bullied by his father and been raised with a toxic sense of pride which when his own family is brought to desperate need, ignites shame and brings Bren into his crosshairs. Bullying Bren, as Cary points out, is easy because Bren lets him, and doesn’t stop Shaun from finding another healthier way of dealing with his anger, which escalates his nastiness as each time Bren accepts this it normalises the toxic behaviour for Shaun, and together they have reached a point where something has got to give, whether that’s Bren standing up for himself, or freezing to death in that house.
But this isn’t a moralistic ‘forgive & understand’ kind of story, whilst across the novel Bren realises the concept of sonder – that just as his own world and family situation is complicated, so are other peoples’- and finds out there’s more to Shaun than a hulking mass of mean, its more an awakening of his courage and voice and the realisation that we all make choices, to lean in or to check out, to rise or fester, and the disaster befalling Furthermoor will force him to take a decision either way.
Please be assured, for those who don’t enjoy ‘bullies made good’ tales, this is a tale focusing on overcoming & realising your inner strength, however quiet and the life changing power of standing up for yourself, and sometimes to your own toxic thoughts in a healthy way to manifest positive change.
And that’s why I am so pleased to be hosting this extract which explores the moment that these three worlds collide and become the catalyst for the events of the book
Part Two – The Monday Before
Chapter Two – Cary
The trouble started with Cary.
Mrs Sendak, head teacher at Williamsborough Academy, had introduced Cary Yue the previous Monday. It was during Mr Okorafor’s Year Eight English class. Every eye in the room was on the new boy, but Cary – stood cheerily at the classroom door beside Mrs Sendak – didn’t shrink away. Not like new pupils usually do.
“Welcome to Williamsborough Academy, Cary,” said Mrs Sendak, smiling mildly. “We had a British-Chinese pupil finish here last year, and she did very well indeed. I’m sure you’ll do our school proud.”
Cary arched an eyebrow beneath his red-dyed fringe, then rolled his eyes in a way Mrs Sendak couldn’t see, which prompted sniggers from some of the students.
Bren watched Cary stroll towards an empty seat by the whiteboard. Though he was short – and perhaps a tad on the plump side – Cary walked at full height, with his back straight, happily meeting the gaze of every student. He didn’t seem fazed at all by the whispers and giggles from the back of the class.
Bren glanced about the room, watching the other students. He saw Shaun tilting his close-cropped head, tracking Cary as he crossed the room. Shaun’s blue eyes were narrow and cold.
Bren knew that look. Shaun was measuring up new prey.
Shaun glanced suddenly at Bren, as if he’d sensed him watching. His lips curled into a sneer. Bren looked away.
He should have been more careful. Should have kept his head down.
After Cary got settled at his desk, Mr Okorafor prompted a chorus of groans by setting a speed essay on George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Hence the loud cheers when the bell finally rang for lunch.
Pupils barrelled by while Mr Okorafor gathered up essays. Bren kept his eyes on his books as he packed them away, and waited for the worst of the rush to pass before skulking to the door.
The corridor outside was busier than he’d expected. Caught by surprise, Bren lowered his head and veered away from the crowd that – rather than making for the school cafeteria – had gathered a few steps from English class.
As keen as Bren was to get to the music room, curiosity got the better of him. Hugging himself into the smallest possible shape, he stopped by a wall display about Macbeth and lingered discreetly, keeping his distance from everyone else.
Giggles and laughter erupted, and Bren saw Cary at the centre of the crowd, grinning and gesturing busily with his hands.
Cary flicked his red fringe from his eyes. He said something that must have been even funnier, because everyone started really cracking up.
Everyone, that is, apart from Shaun.
Like Bren, Shaun hovered at the edge of the throng, looking in from the outside. Bren didn’t want to repeat the mistake of meeting Shaun’s eyes, so he did his best to watch him sidelong, with his head still tilted low. He could see that Shaun wasn’t impressed. Every laugh from Cary’s audience made Shaun’s long forehead crease further, and his black eyebrows met above his nose, sinking in disapproval.
Shaun must have had enough. He pushed a nearby pupil aside, and when others saw him coming they moved quickly out of his path.
I really hope you read Furthermoor, Darren’s writing gets better and better with every novel and this is such a powerful and important exploration of masculinity in the modern world.
Please check out the other stops on the blog tour for this incredible storyteller and his latest book.
Furthermoor by Darren Simpson is published by Usborne
Thank you for my copy 💜