[Please note: I received an Advanced Reading Copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange only for an honest and thorough review. This is (to the best of my ability) a spoiler-free review.]
Everything in Ivy and Seb Sparrow’s lives was perfectly normal and ordinarily common — until the day that Granma Sylvie fell and had to be rushed to hospital for a broken arm. When Ivy and her brother try to return home afterwards, they find their grandmother’s house ransacked, the words “We can see you now” scratched into the wallpaper, and a crooked sixpence lying on the floor. Then, a set of constabular-looking men, armed to the teeth with toilet brushes, appear and, in their escape, Ivy and Seb find themselves in a brand new world that is wholly unordinary where objects are, to say the least, uncommon.
There are so many strong points in Jennifer Bell’s children’s book debut that it’s hard to know where to even start! The Crooked Sixpence is something all its own, but is perfect for fans desperate for the next Harry Potter or A Series of Unfortunate Events with a dash of eerie quirk worthy of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Ivy and Seb’s adventures in the underground world of Lundinor allow us to see each object — a dented bicycle bell, a three-holed button, or our grandmother’s life story — as something new, something powerful, something uncommon. And it isn’t the untouchable power of magic that does (Valian points out, “Hate to ruin your fairy tale, kid, but magic doesn’t exist”); it’s just knowing the object’s own power and essence — which applies to not just to our own world, but each individual as well.
In vast caverns and tunnels under an undisclosed area of England, Bell creates a sprawling world of sundry, haphazardly leaning shop fronts; an arrivals chamber heaped with old bags and luggage; and doors and iron gates to creepy manor houses appearing in brick walls. The world-building is minutely detailed and diverse, creating both common rites of passage practices — “taking the glove” — but also inventing an involved mystery the main characters must solve before time runs out. The uncommon world has a special fashion sense that makes each and every character stand out, building detail upon detail in each scene until Lundinor and its inhabitants are vivid and real for readers. Like in the Harry Potter world, Ivy and Seb discover the world of the uncommoners just as danger and evil are resurfacing on the horizon, and it’s these two “muckers” — un-uncommoners — who take it upon themselves to face the evil head-on.
Just as the uncommon mart of Lundinor is new and different, so too is her motley crew of characters, from the protagonist Ivy to a wraithwolf quoting fairy tales to the many races of the dead haunting the uncommon world. Everyone has a special quirk and fascinating relationships and intersections. Throughout The Crooked Sixpence, Ivy is an enthralling, curious, and active little narrator, precociously reacting to Lundinor with astonishment but coolheaded reasoning. Though she shows fear and confusion often — giving her an air of a refreshingly realistic child character —, Ivy rarely falters in interacting with the new world of uncommon objects and will serve well as an unexpected but brave little role model for many young readers. Also significant is that Bell never characterizes or emphasizes Ivy as specifically female; even her two male sidekicks don’t cater to her as female but rather as the youngest of the three. Similarly, Ivy isn’t the sole female character in a world of powerful male characters, but finds her best allies — and even enemies — in a diverse set of women, old and young, common and uncommon, related and unrelated. Another fresh take in The Crooked Sixpence is Ivy’s close and involved relationship with her family: Her love and dedication to her, grandmother, her parents, and her brother are the main impetus in the narrative’s conflict, serving as a first among children’s stories with dark and dangerous plots that doesn’t need to kill off important relatives.
Bell’s debut children’s book has something for everyone as well as an original and new look at the fantasy genre overall that is imaginative, entertaining, quirky, and empowering for the child character and reader alike. Combined with a fascinating young female character and a diverse cast of characters, The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence promises more adventures to come. Join Ivy, Seb, and Valian in their race against time and the power-hungry, world-threatening Dirge in a new world full of color, power, kindness, imagination, and fun.
Jennifer Bell’s The Uncommoners: The Crooked Sixpence was released January 31, 2017 with Random House Children’s.