Open and shut case?

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

22 thoughts on “Open and shut case?

    1. Agreed, Mallika, but not just that: I’m drawn towards books that present a counterbalance to all the negative and destructive aspects we’re presented with daily, reminding us that people can be upright and good and compassionate and that, even if in a fictional world, cruelty and vindictiveness can be successfully overcome. We need such narrative patterns to sustain ourselves.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I think we try to emulate these positive patterns in little ways so that we can rejoice in our successes — especially important when the big global problems seem insurmountable, certainly by our individual efforts.

          Liked by 1 person

    1. I believe this is marketed as a middle grade fantasy, Ola, so pre-teen, I’d guess. Yes, this is definitely a book with a lot of influences, real and imaginary, but all melded into something original!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. inkbiotic

    The idea of a magical world that exists if you are only lucky enough to stumble on it, is such an appealing one. I don’t think that feeling ever goes away once a book like that captivates you as a kid.
    Great review!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s absolutely captivating, Petra, that notion of the wardrobe, rabbit hole, trunk or whatever, that leads somewhere wonderfully different. I’m pretty convinced that’s why the notion of a physical book, especially hardbacks with a door-like front cover, have the allure that they do (which lifting the lid of a laptop almost captures, but not enough for me… 😁).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. inkbiotic

        That is a beautiful observation. I just went looking to see if anyone used a door as the cover for their book. I can’t see any quite like I imagined, except as a crafty homemade notebook – but they look great. Imagine a library full of books with various types of door fronts, each leading to a different magical place! (now I’ve said it, I’m sure someone’s already written that story!)

        Liked by 1 person

        1. I’m certain I’ve seen the odd hardback with a door-like cover but I can’t locate one either on my shelves or in the recesses of my brain. A quick google brings this up but that wasn’t really what I imagined. Some editions of Owen Sheer’s I Saw A Man have a door on the cover but not as a trompe-l’oeil effect.

          But now I’m imagining your library, and racking my memory to think of story that might match up… Maybe you could write one?? 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

            1. inkbiotic

              Ooh, these are stunning. ‘like a book it contains information that can only be appreciated if opened and explored.’ I could lose myself for hours in these 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

            2. inkbiotic

              That’s almost like Escher! And looking at your Instagram, I really like your photos – I like the patterns and the way the way you put them together, very satisfying 🙂 Thank you for sharing.

              Liked by 1 person

  2. Well, Chris, you’ve sold it to me – I mean, my daughter (aged ten). Actually, when I went to read more about it I noticed it was recommended to fans of the Polar Bear Explorers Club, which was a big hit with E and assures this a place on our bookshelves.

    I must say, there are a LOT of good children’s fantasy novels coming out at the moment, I don’t know if it has always been so and it’s just now I notice, or if we are living in a golden age. Whatever – I’m not complaining!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, there does seem to be a lot of good preteen (and teen) fantasy coming out at the moment — literary Twittetati, specialists in children’s fiction, are constantly recommended stuff — but this particularly appealed, and there also happened to be a promo copy sent to our local indie bookshop (where we volunteer to parcel up orders for despatch). I’m sure your daughter will enjoy this, Helen, given that the protagonist is around her age!


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