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Michael Mann

Phwoar! What a debut! Ghostcloud brought together two of my favourite ingredients in a book – dystopia to die for with a healthy stormcloud of the supernatural. And a villain so cruel, twisted and evil she’s up there alongside my most-hated middle grade characters.

This is a remarkable story of one boy’s fight for freedom against all odds; a soul that burns brightly in the darkness and through the mysterious smog that has a choke-hold on London.

Kidnapped and forced to shovel coal underneath a half-bombed, blackened power station 12-year-old Luke’s life is miserable…

I was absolutely hooked from that first line of the synopsis! Thousands of hidden children shovel coal to the furnaces of Battersea Power Station; instead of luxury appartments, it’s a functioning power plant and it’s overseen by the despicable pipe-smoking tyrant Tabatha Margate.

I absolutely adore how Mann has reimagined the familiar London landscape into a steampunk, alternative reality. After the old war with Europe, only two of the battle-scarred Battersea’s chimneys are operational. The Channel Tunnel stands closed and derelict, the Olympic Stadium dirtied and rotting. East London is flooded and beyond Battersea, lie the slums of South London leading into a toxic wasteland known as The Deadzone.

It’s 2 years since 12 year old Luke became a shoveller; 2 years without any contact with his family; 2 years since he last saw daylight. Hard work is the only way out of the plant and he and fellow inmate Ravi dream of winning an illusive amber ticket to freedom, only awarded to the most efficient of workers. But Margate would give Cruella De Vil a run for her money; her wickedness knows no bounds and torturing children is her favourite pass-time. Without that ticket, the boys’ lives look set to end down there, one way or another.

But in the deserted art-deco corridors of the plant’s eerie East Wing, Luke discovers he can see things others can’t – a ghost girl named Alma. I won’t spoil details of the plot but Alma explains Luke is attuned to the supernatural as he ‘knows death.’ With Alma’s help, Luke learns the terrible truth of why children are being kidnapped and forced to work in the power station and he becomes determined to break out. As the despicable Margate unveils plans to re-open the plant’s third chimney, Luke must race against time to find his freedom.

Sheer desperation drips from every page but Luke is one of those people who sticks at things and his ‘it’s not over ’till it’s over’ attitude’ burns brighter than the coal in the furnaces. He teams up with plumber’s daughter Jess (what she doesn’t know about ventilation shafts isn’t worth knowing!) and as small opportunities present themselves, the plot takes on a thrilling Escape from Alcatraz feel. There’s so many heart-in-the mouth moments where I was clinging on for dear life with them, willing them to succeed. As supporting characters go, Jess is absolutely bang-on-the-money and there’s a wonderful unlikely feline hero too.

If their plan to stop Margate is to have any chance of success, ghostgirl Alma is instrumental, but it transpires she could use some of Luke and Jess’ help along the way too. Alma is roaming London ‘looking for her death’ She explains that when a death is sudden or traumatic, souls often block out what happened and remain trapped. Can they help her find closure?

Luke Smith-Sharma is such a well-drawn protagonist with amazing agency. Half-Indian and now half-ghost, he ‘sometimes he wishes he could be one thing properly’ stemming from Mann’s own childhood experiences which are worked subtly into the story.

Although deliciously dark and dystopian, the ghostcloud scenes above the London skyline and Luke’s memories of life before balance this perfectly, as does Margate’s hapless henchman Terence, a constant source of humour throughout.

The plot comes to a blistering climax which I literally read through my fingers with my breath held! But once the coal dust settles, Mann has left a couple of threads conveniently floating like a Ghostcloud on the breeze and I’m keeping everything crossed that the whispers of a possible sequel are true…

Ghostcloud is out on the 7th October, published by Hachette Children’s.

With thanks to Hachette Children’s and Netgalley for approving me to read an advanced e-copy of the book.

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