On September 2, 1666, a great fire broke out from a bakery in Pudding Lane, London. The fire consumed 13,200 houses, 87 parish churches, St Paul’s Cathedral and most of the buildings of the city authorities. It is estimated to have destroyed the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants.
In spite of such tremendous loss, it is believed that the fire helped in ending the Great Plague of London by killing all the rats hiding in the city’s dark corners. The plague killed an estimated 20 percent of London’s population in 1665 and 1666. Records show that at one stage, the deaths in London reached 7,000 per week.
These historical events form the foundation on which UK writer Colin Wraight’s YA fantasy Poppy Darke and the Cauldron of Fear is written. The plague, according to this story, is the result of a curse posed by Lady Agyness De’athly, a powerful witch who holds a personal vendetta against the people of London. While evading the righteous witch hunters, Agyness sets fire to the bakery in Pudding Lane and throws herself into the flames.
Entering the scene five hundred years later is Poppy Darke, an 11-year-old girl with a bad attitude and an “anti-social behavior” order. She hates everyone and everything, especially the little brat, who hasn’t even been born yet. So when the newborn baby comes and is abducted by an evil Goyle, all fingers of blame soon point at the problem child with the criminal record. Who would believe Poppy’s tale of a 500-year-old witch and a cauldron that is hunger for children’s souls? Who would accept her claim of a ghost haunting her wardrobe?
The transformation of Poppy at the center of this story leads to other twists and turns of the plot. There are ghosts who don’t know they have died, a witch who is dying to resume her youth and beauty, a whole tribe of “Boneshiners”, Goyle warriors whose duty is to “protect the dead, save the living”, and hundreds of innocent children who mysteriously disappeared at different moments of history and are now waiting for rescue by an angel. The legendary demon king leads his army in an epic battle against the Goyle warriors at the Finsbury Fields north of London. Meanwhile, a bloody fight happens between a “hell hound” named Midnight and Twiddles the magically deformed cat.
In Poppy Darke and the Cauldron of Fear, Poppy is portrayed as a sensitive and kind girl who hides her worries and fear under the mask of a bully. However, she shines like an angel once proper care and attention is paid to her. Her confusion, frustration, anger and yearning for love are revealed to the reader like a mirror that reflects the emotional and psychological struggles often experienced by young readers. Poppy’s best friend Jesse is also an excellent character. A seven-year-old boy longing to return to his parents, his misery as well as his bravery will bring tears to your eyes. Two other wonderful characters are Gargle Skuttlebucket and Slurpe Rottenoffle. While the former is an old Goyle warrior trying to hide from his past, a brave new life awaits the latter who flies like a bird but never learns how to land properly.
In Poppy Darke and the Cauldron of Fear, Wraight writes with an endearing sense of humor. His primary focus is how to comfort the dead and let them rest in peace, while encouraging the living to do their best in a life full of possibilities. The transformation of Poppy demonstrates to readers not only the unique struggles faced by young people and the scars they leave upon them, but also how they can help in creating a world of peace and joy if they are willing to try. These are lessons even adults can learn, which is precisely why this book of YA fantasy is suitable for all readers.