It’s wonderful to read a book which leaves you feeling, with every page, that you’ve just drunk a large cup of warm tea (or coffee, or hot chocolate, or whatever is your comfort beverage of choice) – not to suggest that The Uncommoners is cutesy, or twee, or in any sense bland. It’s not. What I mean is, it’s such a great story, so well told, that it just leaves you feeling satisfied, completely happy with your lot, and glad to have made the acquaintance of so many great characters in such a perfect setting. I don’t think I’ve read a better Middle Grade fantasy book in a long time.
The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence is the debut novel of Jennifer Bell, who happens to be a fellow Greenhouser. She and I share an agent, though we don’t know one another in real life (so my review isn’t in the slightest bit biased!) I heard about her book several years ago, through our agent, and I’ve been dying to read it ever since. It was well worth the wait.
The book tells the story of Ivy Sparrow and her older brother Seb, who we meet on the dramatic night their beloved Granma Sylvie is rushed to hospital after a fall. Their parents are both at work and can’t get to the hospital for several hours, so Ivy and Seb need to look after Granma as best they can. While in the hospital, Ivy notices a strange man with very odd hands who seems to be looking for someone; he gives her the creeps, but eventually she and Seb have to go home. But when they get there, they find the place ransacked and – weirdest of all – a feather, suspended in midair, leaving an eerie message scratched into the wall of Granma’s kitchen.
Next thing they know, a coach and four complete with black plumes is arriving at their door and they’re being pursued by a strange man who appears to be some sort of police officer – though one armed with a toilet brush instead of a gun – and they’re being helped to escape through a suitcase by a strange boy named Valian. They end up in a place called Lundinor, which exists beneath the London they know, and is a teeming market for ‘uncommon’ objects – everyday things (like toilet brushes) which have secret powers to do odd and unexpected things. Here, a yoyo can defeat a selkie, and bells can speak.
It turns out that Granma Sylvie – who has lost the memory of her life before Twelfth Night, 1969, when she was involved in an accident as a young woman – is far more complex and intriguing than the children first thought. They are thrown headlong into a mystery tying their family to the fate of Lundinor, a generations’-old conspiracy, and the adventure of their lives as they try to get to grips with this strange new place and the scary new truths about their family.
Oh, and that’s not mentioning the fact that their parents are kidnapped somewhere along the way, threatened with certain death unless Ivy and Seb return the Great Uncommon Good, an object which they’re believed to have stolen – but of which they’ve never heard a word before their adventure begins. Can they uncover the truth, save their parents (and their dear Granma), and sort out the complexities of Lundinor, before midnight?
This book is fantastic. It’s wonderfully written, perfectly paced, full of excellent touches of folklore, particularly the lore of London (the bells of St Clements, for instance) and peopled with fantastic characters. Seb is so ‘real’ I felt I knew him personally; Ivy a wonderful, brave heroine. Granma is wonderful, as is her old-new friend Ethel. The baddies are superb (and genuinely frightening). But the best part is Lundinor. I adored everything about this ‘other’ world, which reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s London Below. It was so well described and perfectly imagined that it felt like you were walking its streets as you read. It’s a book i didn’t want to end – and one for which I’m glad there are sequels in the pipeline!
I don’t tend to give ‘star’ ratings, but this one is an Uncommon Ten, and no mistake. I couldn’t recommend it more highly. Brava, Jennifer Bell!