Port Fayt. Trading heart of the Middle Islands. Situated between the Old World and the New World, it has long been a safe haven where humans live peacefully, more or less, alongside trolls, elves, goblins, imps and fairies. It has its usual problems as you’d expect from a trading port – tides of drunken sailors making their way from one inn to the next for just one more tankard of grog; dubious entertainment in the form of Harry’s Shark Pit where merfolk take on Harry’s pet sharks (and where there are no runners-up prizes); and the ‘odd’ bit of contraband that slips through the net.
Keeping a close eye on all the goings-on in Port Fayt is Captain Newton and his ragbag of watchmen – the Demon’s Watch. There’s Captain Newton himself. Larger than life but never in your face, unless the situation calls for it. His preferred course of action is to ”stay in the shadows, unseen and unknown. Always waiting, always watching”. But that’s just the way he likes it. Then there’s the Bootle twins, Frank and Paddy, who are trolls and the sons of Mr and Mrs Bootle, proprietors of Bootle’s Pie Shop. There’s Hal, the Demon’s Watch’s very own magician, pasty-faced and bespectacled, but able to conjure up a spell in the tightest of corners.
“‘How’s that spell coming, Hal?’ called Newton, pulling a pistol from the unconscious pirate’s belt. ‘I’m trying to concentrate,’ said Hal through gritted teeth. ‘These aren’t exactly perfect conditions for magic, you know.’ Newton grunted and fired the pistol. ‘Fine. Hate to rush you.’”
Old Jon, the elf, has been a watchman since, well, forever. He can usually be found sitting in the corner, watching and listening carefully. He’s the one with the long white hair who doesn’t say much. But when he does, it’s worth listening to. Finally, there’s Tabitha. You can’t really miss Tabitha. Dyed blue hair (you’ll find out why when you read the book) and a tendency to speak and act a little impulsively. The thing about Tabitha is that she’s young. She’s also desperate to impress Captain Newton who took her under his wing when she was orphaned at a young age. But what she lacks in experience and judgement Tabitha more than makes up for with courage and tenacity.
Meanwhile, half-goblin boy Joseph Grubb is working at the Legless Mermaid, a tavern of ill repute run by his uncle Mr Lightly who rewards his hard work and unremitting service by calling him a ‘mongrel’, ‘stupid’ and other nice names like that. A chance encounter with a Captain Clagg, a pirate described as “thicker than Mrs Bootle’s custard”, a mysterious package left after another drunken brawl and suddenly Grubb finds himself free of the Legless Mermaid but embroiled in Fayt’s criminal underworld. It is there that he meets the Demon’s Watch.
“‘We’re the Demon’s Watch, son. Protectors of Port Fayt. Scourge of all sea scum. Don’t tell me you’ve never heard of us?’”
Port Fayt is facing its most dangerous threat yet. The powerful League of the Light, already in control in The Old World, want to rid it of all non-humans or ‘demonspawn’ as they put it so nicely. Throw into the mix a dangerous witch seeking revenge on the port that exiled her ten years earlier and you have a remarkable, fast-paced, magic-filled, pirate-strewn, fantasy adventure. Will Grubb become Fayt’s most improbable hero? The one person who could help the Demon’s Watch save Port Fayt?
Conrad Mason’s descriptions of life in Port Fayt, his humour and his turn of phrase make The Demon’s Watch a complete joy to read. Stop for a moment and breathe in deeply - smell the rich aroma of Velvetbean alongside the rotten fish, taste the salt in the air and hear merchants bartering at the dockside or another fight breaking out in the Marlinspike Quarter. Lose yourself in Port Fayt. And if you do, here’s a map to help you find your way.
Interview with Conrad Mason, author of The Demon’s Watch
Babbleabout: The Demon’s Watch is your debut novel. What was your inspiration to write it?
Conrad Mason: I’d tried to write things before The Demon’s Watch, but never got further than the first page. Then I read How to Write a Novel by John Braine. It’s a really inspiring book, and it got me started on the project that would become TDW. I was always interested in fantasy stories which played around with the conventions of the genre, and I felt that someone ought to stand up for goblins. They generally get treated pretty badly in fiction. I suppose I felt sorry for them.
Babbleabout: I understand you read Classics at Cambridge University Did this in any way help you with ideas and with your writing?
Conrad Mason: Yes, in that it involved a lot of writing! And my 10,000-word thesis was a good lesson in stamina, which of course is very important for working on a novel. Ideas are harder to track down, but I will say that studying Apuleius’s novel The Golden Ass, about a man who accidentally transforms himself into a donkey, had a big effect on me.
Babbleabout: What were your favourite children’s books when you were a child? Did you have a favourite author that you always sought out in a bookshop or at your local library?
Conrad Mason: So many… Roald Dahl early on. And later I became obsessed with the Redwall books by Brian Jacques. Martin the Warrior was the first book which made me cry.
Babbleabout: You are a very young writer. What advice do you have for any aspiring children’s writers?
Conrad Mason: I think everyone has to find their own way of doing things, but my personal breakthrough was in separating the act of writing from the act of editing. They’re different skills, and it’s very difficult to do both at the same time. Beyond that, I think the main thing is to keep reading and writing. Critical reading can help you spot what works and what doesn’t. And of course the more you write, the more consistently good your writing becomes.
Babbleabout: I understand you volunteered as a reader at local schools. Tell us a little more about this, e.g was this through a charity or direct with the school?
Conrad Mason: It was for a charity called Volunteer Reading Help, organized through Usborne Publishing where I used to work. I went to the local school once a week and spent half an hour or so reading with children aged 7 to 9. It was so much fun. And especially gratifying when they enjoyed Usborne books…
Babbleabout: Who is your favourite contemporary children’s writer?
Conrad Mason: This is a tough one! I am terrible at picking favourites. For younger children, I love Andy Stanton’s Mr Gum books. For older readers, two recent favourites have been A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness and Siobhan Dowd and Wonder by R.J. Palacio. But ask me on another day and the answer will probably be different.
Babbleabout: The actions of the League of the Light (in The Demon’s Watch) could loosely be compared with events during a dark period in European history (World War II). Would this be a fair comparison?
Conrad Mason: Yeah, I think it would be fair. In real life, people we think of as evil rarely think of themselves that way, and I very much wanted to have this sort of villain in my book. I think they’re far more scary than the ‘Dark Lord’ variety. The League of the Light are absolutely convinced that they’re doing the right thing, which is what makes them so determined and so dangerous. It’s something I’ll be exploring more in the sequel…