‘The Magic Place’ book review: Illustrator and author Chris Wormell’s beautiful homage to classic fairy tales

The artist, who is most well-known for his illustrations in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust series, creates a compelling mix of storytelling and graphic art

John Millen |
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The Magic Place
By Chris Wormell
Published by David Fickling Books
ISBN 978 178 845015 7

Chris Wormell’s The Magic Place is an extraordinary piece of storytelling and graphic art. The skill and imagination that has gone into this book lifts it up, to a level all its own. And the physical book is part of the appeal here – it’s an “octavo”, a smaller, hand-sized hardback that is a pleasure to pick up and open. There is also an e-book version, but you need to hold the actual book to fully appreciate Wormell’s achievement.

The storyline is simple. Our hero Clementine is kept a virtual prisoner by her aunt and uncle. They lock her in a cellar at night and allow her out in the morning to act as their servant. Aunt Vermilia and Uncle Rufus Grimble are the most hideous villains to appear in children’s fiction for quite some time. How their niece has ended up in their clutches is a mystery, but all will be revealed as the story moves on.

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The Grimbles live in a city of soot and grime where the sun hardly ever shines. Clementine’s only friend is Gilbert the cat, who seems to understand the little girl’s grim situation. Still, Aunt Vermilia and Uncle Rufus haven’t yet destroyed the glimmer of hope that Clementine keeps at the back of her mind. Sometimes she can glimpse a small patch of blue sky if she looks up the chimney in her cold cellar. And she can remember bits of a magic place that she thinks she knew when she was very young.

Clementine is a strong-minded girl with a spirit that others in her situation would have lost long ago. When she manages to escape into the Great Black City, she is determined to discover if the magic place in her head really exists.

The hideous Grimbles are villains straight out of Charles Dickens – The shadow of his Oliver Twist pops up occasionally as Clementine confronts her situation, but Oliver didn’t have a cat as resourceful as Gilbert – and Wormell brings them to life with his amazing illustrations. There are chases aplenty, and mayhem ensues as the Grimbles get their just deserts.

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In the art world, Wormell is celebrated for his detailed wood and lino cuts – he illustrated Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust series – and that talent appears on almost every page of this book. Art isn’t just decorative here, the interplay between story and illustrations is an essential part of the tale.

The Magic Place is a perfectly packaged tale about the triumph of a young human spirit over dreadful odds. It is full of cartoon villainy, hope, and smatterings of whimsical charm.

Wormell throws in a very neat surprise at the end of the book, so don’t be tempted to thumb through to the final pages ahead of time!

John Millen can be contacted at [email protected]

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