Neversuch House by Elliott Skell

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Neversuch House by Elliott Skell

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: Omnia Halibut, aged twelve and a quarter, has lived her whole life on a vast estate which has been separated from the outside for generations by a huge wall with only one gate. She believes she knows every corner of her world, until a chance event sets her on a dangerous, enthralling adventure which uncovers a web of corruption and menace at the heart of Neversuch House.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: February 2011
Publisher: Simon and Schuster Children's Books
ISBN: 978-1847387431

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Omnia is a girl who likes to know things, and when she sees something unusual she sets out to find out what is happening. It is a decision which almost kills her. Something is not right at the heart of Neversuch House, and at least one person is determined to stop her finding out what it is.

The most striking thing about this excellent book is the world-building skill of its author. Many generations before, a wealthy Captain and his servant arrived in the small town of Pettifog and set about buying up square mile after square mile of land. A wall was placed all round this estate, and a vast house, as big as a town, was constructed. Staff were employed, and brought inside the walls with their families, and from time to time a young bride (usually one with no family to tie her to her past life) came to Neversuch to marry one of the Captain's sons. But no one who enters the House, apart from the occasional messenger, can ever leave again, and eventually they cease to want to.

From that time to this the Halibuts have continued to be fabulously rich, able to indulge any hobby or passion. Two groups have developed. The Halibuts are the descendants of the Captain, and they spread far and wide across the vast House, living in as many or as few rooms as they choose. They are looked after by an army of servants, and what binds everyone together is the belief that the world outside the wall is a terrible place. This is a fascinating concept: what would be the mind-set of someone who not only has never seen the outside world, but has never wanted to? At one point Omnia looks out through a hole in the wall which surrounds her home, and we learn it is not the first time she has done so. In most books, she would immediately long to escape, to see what lies beyond her horizons, if only to test the firmly-held belief of the Halibuts that it is a dark, dreary place where people have to work all day to earn just enough to feed themselves. But Omnia, a bright and curious young girl, and her good friend Evergrow, are so well conditioned by their eccentric life that they feel no such desire. What interests Omnia, and attracts her attention, is a curious break in the ordered routine of the House.

Omnia's world has some striking aspects. Children, both of the ruling class and of the servants, receive a basic education. After that they split into their two groups, and the children of the servants are trained for their adult work, usually following in their parents' footsteps. Halibut children, on the other hand, do not have to attend school ever again, a situation most young readers would envy. But interestingly, most of the children do go regularly to the schoolroom (called the House of Leaning, due to a spelling mistake in the original carving over the door, and where the floor has been tilted to fit the name). Is it for the companionship of their peers, a deep sense of habit and tradition, or a vague awareness that they need to know more than they can find out alone? Or is it a mixture of all of these reasons?

The fact that the servants work hard is constantly noted, though as Omnia is our point of view character, it is never stressed or considered remarkable. The Halibuts, on the other hand, are so free of worldly care that they have to actively search for an interest and purpose in life, and they end up studying (and becoming obsessed about) all manner of insignificant subjects like, for example, the variations in the shadows formed by the buildings at different times of the year. But as we explore the Halibut world, which at first seems a paradise of freedom, leisure and unlimited wealth, we see it has gradually turned sour. The rulers of this vast estate begin to look like useless and even helpless parasites, unable to look after themselves or imagine a world which is not restricted and regulated by tradition. They are greedy and selfish, ready to injure each other for a useless keepsake, and apparently indifferent to their children. Omnia, for example, goes missing for several days, but her parents show no alarm or concern for her safety.

While the world of Neversuch House is endlessly fascinating, the book is first and foremost a thrilling adventure story, with heart-stopping chases across the roofs, and desperate, courageous actions aplenty as Omnia tries to make sense of the mysteries which surround her. Why have so many freakish and fatal accidents occurred in the history of Neversuch? Who is the evil man who has tried to kill her several times, and who has spread terrible rumours about her so she cannot ask the adults for help? Who are the Evergones, and does the strange imprisoned woman want to harm or help her? And most important of all, who can she trust?

It is clear there is more – much, much more – to tell about Neversuch House and its denizens. By the end of the book Omnia may have made some new friends, and she has definitely made new enemies. But this does not mean the reader feels dissatisfied: the mystery at the heart of this particular volume is resolved and the villain has been driven away, which is as it should be in each book in a series. Still, the reader (including this one) will watch out impatiently for news of the next adventure!

Many thanks to Simon and Schuster for sending us this brilliant book.

Further reading suggestion: More feisty heroines who live in extraordinary worlds will be found in Forest Born by Shannon Hale and The Search for WondLa by Tony DiTerlizzi.

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