Review: THE HOUSE AT THE EDGE OF MAGIC by Amy Sparkes

Nine is an orphan pickpocket determined to escape her life in the Nest of a Thousand Treasures. When she steals a house-shaped ornament from a mysterious woman’s purse, she knocks on its tiny door and watches it grow into a huge, higgledy-piggledy house. Inside she finds a host of magical and brilliantly funny characters, including Flabberghast – a young wizard who’s particularly competitive at hopscotch – and a hideous troll housekeeper who’s emotionally attached to his feather duster. They have been placed under an extraordinary spell, which they are desperate for Nine to break – and if she can, maybe they can offer her a new life in return…”

(from https://www.walker.co.uk/The-House-at-the-Edge-of-Magic-9781406395310.aspx )

Welcome to the sparkling world of magical mayhem that is Amy Sparkes’ The House at the Edge of Magic! Fans of Amy’s fantastical picture books and laugh-out-loud Pirate Blunderbeard series will love this new adventure which combines magic and humour into one irresistible, spellbinding package for younger middle grade readers. Readers who, as they get a little older, will likely go on to enjoy the similarly immersive and beautifully imagined magical worlds of stories such as L.D. Lapinski’s The Strangeworlds Travel Agency, or Maria Kuzniar’s The Ship of Shadows and their upcoming sequels. 

For it’s the sheer energy, playful inventiveness and sensuous detail of Amy Sparkes’ world-building, from the dark, plum-coloured hallway lit by a candelabra to the ever-shifting position of the house’s one and only toilet, that pulls the reader into this story and makes them feel like they never want to leave. There is a continual sense that literally anything can happen and quite likely will – the house positively fizzes with magical possibility! Yet despite being jam-packed with off-the-wall, and sometimes quite shocking, surprises, it also feels strangely familiar and comforting, with just the right amount of unsettling scariness for young readers.

It’s also hilarious – from gags based on common idioms and tropes (the skeleton in the closet, the dreaded cupboard under the stairs packed full of junk), to throwaway slapstick (the hatstand that kicks Flabberghast right back when he kicks it in annoyance), and the inventive variations on the titles of the wizard Flabberghast’s ancestors (Ignatius the Permanently Late has a particularly funny cameo towards the end of the story) – the laughs come thick and fast and complement the breathless pace of the action.

Then there is the strength of the characterisation. From the moment we see Nine using her hard-won pickpocketing expertise to try to snatch something valuable to take back to the miserly gangmaster who grudgingly gives her shelter, we are rooting for her.  Nine is a sparky, resourceful but endearingly flawed protagonist with a well-crafted, convincing back story. Prickly at first, she gradually learns to accept that she too needs affection and can trust others. I loved the moment when the fabulous magic tea cupboard (read it and see!) momentarily changes Nine into four copies of herself: three of them act out different emotional reactions and the fourth, the real one, ‘gritted her teeth and refused to show anything’. This is clever, economic writing, where phrases and ideas work hard to perform multiple functions within the story.

There is a whole cast of weird but wonderful supporting characters: big-hearted Eric, the troll housekeeper; posh tea-lover Flabberghast – a volatile young wizard in fluffy slippers; ferocious Dr Spoon – a kilt-wearing wooden spoon who likes to experiment with alchemy; Pockets – a miserly Fagin who awakens pity in Nine despite the horrible life he subjects her to; and, last but not least, the dangerously silky-voiced villain of the piece – a delightfully vindictive witch whose curse forms the backbone of the whole story. But these are not caricatures. They too have been carefully crafted with emotional depth and clear back stories: the relationships that develop between them ring true and give heart to the story, so that the emotional core feels real and convincing.  

The plot is fast-moving, and tension is ramped up at every turn. With lots at stake for the central characters, a race against the clock, and the strong central premise of the witches’ curse, young readers will be desperate to read on to find out exactly what the mysterious curse entails. The fact that we don’t clearly see the witch for a large part of the story adds to the suspense.

There is no miraculous, easily-won solution, and nothing comes out of the blue – the characters are put through the ringer and must work hard to extricate themselves from their predicament, and there is skilful foreshadowing throughout, so that the final ‘A-ha!’ moments are all the more satisfying. I loved the careful interweaving of recurring threads: Nine’s love of libraries, for example, is integral to both the plot and the emotional resonance of the story, and her pickpocketing technique that we see right at the start resurfaces several times at critical moments.

To conclude, this is an immersing and hugely entertaining read with a surprising ending that will leave readers eager for more – luckily they will not be disappointed. Whilst all the threads are satisfyingly tied up, there is one left tantalisingly open… the promise of other worlds, ‘and the worlds between the worlds’ still to be travelled. A sequel is apparently on the way, and I for one can’t wait to get my hands on a copy!

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