Welcome to the Last Chance Hotel, standing alone in seemingly endless woodland, where a coterie of oddballs are about to descend and usher in an impossible murder over dinner.
The aesthetic of Nicki Thornton’s debut is difficult to capture, which is both a great strength and a slight weakness. Those oddball guests are first introduced through a list of who in is what room and any specific requests they’ve made, and — in, say, “Gregorian Kingfisher: a room with a picture of people playing sport” or “Professor Penelope Papperspook: likes to be woken by the sound of birdsong” — there’s a hinting at the just-out-of-reach which recalls the very best of Douglas Adams. Upon their appearances in the first few chapters — with Dr. Torpor Thallomius looking “like a miniature Father Christmas” and Darinder Dunster-Dunstable’s “enormous pointy ears [which] seemed to be doing their best to make up for the rest of him being undersized” — I was unable to shake the visual stylings of Henry Selick, director of stop-motion films The Night Before Christmas (1993) and James and the Giant Peach (1996).
And yet it doesn’t even really settle there. Thornton is also capable of rolling out a Pratchettesque observation such as the footnote-cum-disclaimer on Inspector Pewter’s business card, or the gorgeous reflection on the magic-infused forest surrounding the hotel on all sides:
Seth loved the forest, had always loved the forest. He loved the fact that when your ears got used to the silence you started to hear the endless trees whispering, then birdsong tuned in. And finally, you could hear the screech and crackle of wildlife as it scurried about its tooth-and-claw business. And you realized that most of what was going on was savage, if mostly silent.
I’ve jumped in ahead of the plot with these observations because the shifts in tone are subtle at times but belie Thornton’s newness at trying to maintain consistency. The first section, comprising the opening 62 pages and ending at the hotel’s ostensible kitchen boy but actually Jack-of all-trades Seth Seppi’s accusation for the murder of Dr Thallomius, are oddly pitched at a very young audience indeed, and feel weirdly over-simple. Each very short chapter is clearly The Chapter in Which Event X Happens Because Event X Will Be Important Later, and once Event X is out of the way there’s a sort of sigh and the chapter just…stops, as if the intended audience couldn’t cope with more than one event in 6 pages (a problem for 4 year-olds, no doubt, but this develops in such a way as to clearly not be for the 4 year-old market).
Thankfully, Part Two — pages 65 to 236 — is much more even, and unfolds at a brisk pace with a very adroit sketching in of background: magic is real, the magical community is reeling following an event called The Unpleasant in which 46 sorcerers are Missing Feared Exploded (again that inconsistency: ‘The Unpleasant’ seems to linger with menace, but ‘Missing Feared Exploded’ is positively twee and carefree), and it’s potentially as a result of this that Dr. Thallomius was poisoned. Oh, yeah, I didn’t mention that he was poisoned, did I? Being allergic to raspberries and with a raspberry pavlova the only dessert on offer, Seth made an Apricot Delice which was set aside especially for the great man (he’s a big deal in magical circles). Seth didn’t poison it and no-one went near it before the dessert course (the room was double-locked, two different locks and two different people with a key each), and no-one went near it during dinner (multiple witness testimony), but after a single mouthful Thallomius fell down dead, the unmistakable scent of bitter almonds in the air.
“Magic! Hang on, where’s Vera…?”
Agatha Christie’s The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) gets a mention, but don’t hold out much hope there, traditional detection fans. It’s true that certain regard is given to key aspects of detective fiction — “at the early stage of an investigation is often difficult to know what the right clues are likely to be” says magical policeman Pewter, and later on Seth reflects that a key discovery “couldn’t have looked less important — the solution here is pure magic, and not really prepared for in a sense that could be called fair play. It’s…fine, but there’s nothing to say that the action required is possible within the universe until you’re seeing that action happen, upon which it’s immediately deduced by Seth who the killer is and how the deed was done.
Which is really my main difficulty with this book overall: the broad picture is fabulous, but Thornton doesn’t quite have the necessary hold on her details. And it’s not just in this case, but evident throughout — those requests made by the guests serve no purpose (and in one case, Papperspooks’s birdsong request, make no sense that it would be made given developments later on that see her catching her own birdsong with a magical net — a lovely idea, but nonsensical if it’s something she requested the hotel be responsible for). Indeed, these details even work against the plot, since one request made by someone is if anything the precise inverse of what they would have asked for: if anything, they’d want everyone else to have the thing they’ve asked for in their room. And then suddenly a detail will matter, like a revelation about who was on the scene of the crime that is buried with a talent to deceive which Ms. Christie herself would applaud…
And yet, I very much enjoyed this in spite of the callowness of Thornton’s own experience showing through so clearly at times. The wider picture she hints at is extremely well drawn and relayed with a lightness of touch that I’ve not seen since Derek Landy’s superlative Skulduggery Pleasant series (of which Thornton herself is a fan). One cannot now talk about legitimate magic in Young Person’s Fiction without H____y P_____r rearing his spectacles, and Thornton does a commendable job of not simply churning out a rehash of the core elements of that gigantically successful and influential behemoth. Sure, she also hasn’t nailed the tightness of Landy’s own first novel, at the end of which you had a far clearer idea of what was allowable in that universe than you do here, but there’s a sequel-baiting ending to this and I hope Thornton has the chance to develop, refine, and improve her stall in that second title.
“Sorry I’m late…”
Suffice to say, this becomes a little unwieldy in Part Three, as the revelations pour out via an action climax that is confusingly written and hugely at odds with the subtlety of the preceding section. It feels as if this is the entryway to an ever-more-complex story that will — assuming the existence of future volumes — get closer and closer to the conspiracy and actions hinted at herein…and, yeah, I dunno if I want another YA series that tells an increasingly epic story over 12 books. Honestly, I’d love this series to develop into to a series of investigations around the fringes of The Big Central Story, with that BCS filled in through subtle touches in the smaller cases being explored each time. Patrick Ness attempted a similar thing in his novel The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015) — and, being Patrick Ness, did a substandard job of it to near-universal acclaim — and Thornton has laid the groundwork here for such an undertaking which the final section makes me think she’ll never actually write. Far better to have incomprehensible chases up waterfalls and fistfights, right? Subtext is for cowards.
Or, well, maybe I’m wrong. I’ll keep an eye out for a second entry in this series, and if it pursues a similar investigative avenue you’ll hear about it on here. Should Nicki Thornton never crop up on TIE ever again, however, you’ll know what happened. And now we wait…