Stephen Black described his debut novel, published in 2019, as “a supernatural fantasy that explores very real themes and issues”, which was helpful, as for me the peg that is ‘Skelly’s Square’ doesn’t fit snugly into the round holes of several familiar fiction genres. Fantastical certainly, with intriguing supernatural elements and some YA tendencies, but as the world blithely stumbles towards the brink of disaster, the unwitting champions of the planet are the most unlikely of superheroes. The titular, OCD-wracked Kirkwood Scott; an alcohol-dependent, homeless teenager (Meredith Starc); physically disabled, young wheelchair-user (Harley Davison); and the late Emily O’Hara. However, what the living characters have in common is their status as pawns in an intergalactic power grab, which threatens the very existence of mankind and will see the trio cast as the last line of defence against ‘the Scourge’.
Leading the predators greedily eyeing the Earth is Colonel Augustus Skelly. A wonderfully macabre villain, Skelly has the opportunity to avenge the ignominious cull of his whole command at the battle of Waterloo in 1815, where, though among the triumphant Duke of Wellington’s forces, the 49th Somerset Regiment would warrant little more than a footnote acknowledging they were attendees. Two centuries later, as Skelly marshalls his troops to storm the portal and unleash the dark forces of occupation from another dimension, the ultimate comeback is at hand.
And it is this contrast of scale and perspective, which lies at the heart of this finely balanced story and offers sardonic levity in the face of individual and collective doom. The three young people struggling with respective circumstances, which threaten to overwhelm, are beautifully observed by the author. Scott and Starc particularly come perilously close to a sense of individual, rock-bottom hopelessness and though the reader may be discomforted by the depths plumbed, Stephen Black has skilfully constructed the exhilaration of a countering ascent befitting of a roller coaster, careering around Northern Ireland.
For this reader, Harley Davison was an unfortunate late-comer to the party, whose character didn’t quite experience the development of her peers, but I applaud the author for his sensitive portrayal that avoided defining the young woman by her disability and I hope the cameo appearance in this first chronicle may be fleshed out further in the sequel.
Of course it is possible that Mr Black’s exposition of some mundane, demoralising aspects of the human experience, anchor the plot and thus offer an artful way of giving full rein to the more imaginative elements. However, whilst the blunt observation of Meredith Starc is wryly accurate, “It’s hardly DC versus Marvel…” the book (all ninety one glorious chapters) gambols along relentlessly, suffused with that most human of emotions – hope and in the depths of the created gloom, the author shines a welcome torch. I shall look forward to Book 2 – “A New Jerusalem” with a warm glow of expectation.