L D Lapinski:
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency
Orion Children’s Books 2020
Felicity Hudson may only be twelve, but a family house move from a city to a village, combined with the scary prospect of a new school after the summer, means Flick has to grab chances to explore whenever she can. And what she comes across wandering down a Victorian arcade is a shabby shopfront:
Beside the church, leaning drunkenly into the alleyway, was a tiny, squashed-looking shop with a big bay window [which] looked the same as the other shops on the street: old, unpopular, rather unloved, and as though it might have a bit of a weird smell.
This is the travel agency of the title. And a very odd travel agency it is with, unsurprisingly, a clue in its name. But first of all Flick has to cross the threshold, after which the things will never be the same. Is it fate that has driven her here?
The Strangeworlds Travel Agency turns out to be a classic portal fantasy, allowing access to places beyond our own mundane existence, places where magic exists and may be made visible when looking through a special magnifying glass. Do you remember Newt Scamander’s case from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them? Just like Newt’s container the suitcases of the agency open up to allow one to enter, not merely an expanded TARDIS-like space, but alien worlds; and yet like those viewed by Will in The Subtle Knife not all worlds are like Earth, nor are they without peril.
Flick’s human guide is the young-looking yet old-fashioned eighteen-year-old Jonathan Mercator, the only member of staff at the agency. And when he discovers she can see otherwise invisible phenomenon in a special magnifying glass he invites her to join the secret Strangeways Society, with the possibility of travelling to other worlds in the multiverse.
But something is wrong at the presumed ‘hub’ of this multiverse, the city of Five Lights, where streets are disappearing and magic is leaking away; and it’s somehow related to a guild of thieves and the mysterious disappearance of Jonathan’s father. Is the crisis something that Jonathan and Flick can start to address or will a disagreement come between them?
This is a rip-roaring and assured debut fantasy, and a promising start to a planned series. Yes, there are echoes of other fantasies but the author has blazed her own unique path through an otherwise well-trodden terrain, and has narrated it with a distinctive voice and an engaging style. I loved the sometimes fractious interplay between the precocious Flick and the pretentious Jonathan; I liked the echoes of mapmaking and exploration in names such as Mercator and Hudson, and in the amusing names of thieves such as Pinch, Swype and Nicc; I wondered at the likelihood that a village would be called Little Wyverns; and I approved that moral issues such as cheating and lying were being wrestled with by some of the characters, and that Flick’s home situation — not the easiest with both parents working, plus a toddler brother into everything — meant that, possibly unfairly, she was faced with big responsibilities for her age.
There is a satisfying resolution to this first instalment after an exciting roller-coaster ride, but the several loose ends — Jonathan’s missing father, the mystery about the founder of the Strangeworlds Society, the fate of the Overseer of the Thieves of First Lights, the nature of the so-called schisms that can be contained in the Society’s suitcases, and how it is that an ordinary schoolgirl has the magical abilities that she has — all point at welcome sequels yet to come. As the final sentence hints, the agency’s door — like its suitcases, and like the covers of a book — is a two-way portal.
She stepped through the door of The Strangeworlds Travel Agency, out of one world and into another.
Another title read for Wyrd & Wonder