Carolyn Percy enjoys a thrill ride of a children’s novel, but finds The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell has a lot more to say about our current work than first meets the eye.
When Suzy Smith hears strange noises in the middle of the night and goes to investigate, she expects a burglar. She doesn’t expect to find train tracks being laid. By a grumpy troll. Or for a train to then come roaring through her kitchen. But this is obviously no ordinary train; this is the delivery express for the Union of Impossible Places, “all the weird and magical places that don’t quite fit anywhere else.” Smuggling herself aboard, she’s made a postie by short-staffed Post-Master Wilmot (it’s just him) and her first task is to deliver a seemingly innocuous package to a sorceress that everyone seems to be terrified of. So far so simple. But then the package starts to talk, begging her not to deliver him, and Suzy finds that the fate of the Union may, literally, be in her hands.
Shortlisted for the 2019 Waterstones Children’s Book Prize and the FamilyBookworm’s Welsh Book awards Middle-Grade category, P.G. Bell’s debut is the Jolly Postman/Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy crossover you never knew you wanted (Suzy even goes on her adventure in her pyjamas and dressing gown, though, much to her chagrin, not her cool pyjamas but the ones from her aunt that make her look like a frilly Battenberg cake).
Taking clear inspiration from British science fiction like Hitchhikers and Doctor Who (with some brilliant little jokes and references sprinkled in; a book titled VWORP VWORP Advanced Dematerialisation anyone?), The Train to Impossible Places not only uses this sensibility and humour to tell an entertaining romp of a story but also to explore some very prescient themes. For example, the Troll Postal Services has been suffering from budget cuts which, with the creation of the Ether-net (the Troll equivalent of the internet) has been putting workers out of a job and slowly rendering the service obsolete, something that those working in cash-strapped public services (there are jokes that will definitely raise some smirks of recognition) and those for who have lost out from technology and progress will be all too familiar with.
But the big theme is that of democracy vs totalitarianism. One of the two seats of government in the Union of Impossible Places is in charge of information, whose holders of office started thinking that they were better than those they served (so the fact that this office is known as the ‘Ivory Tower’ becomes deliciously ironic). The villain is someone whose aim is to control everything by controlling the flow of information, choosing who gets to know what simply because he thinks he knows better and has no qualms about abusing his power and privilege in order to do it. Starting with accumulating personal information with the intent of using it to spy. In an age where there seems to be a race to control what people see and believe online and in print and where there’s contention over what governments and companies do with the personal data they’re entrusted with, this too begins to sound very familiar.
But if that sounds awfully dry or preachy, don’t worry, it’s neither. Whilst they’re given proper emotional weight, the themes are expounded upon with the most humorous touches. The cast of characters is wonderfully diverse, with Suzy and Wilmot being particular standouts. Suzy’s love of physics makes for a great change (as well as comes in useful) and Wilmot is noble, lovable and endearing and together they make a great team. The story speeds along at the pace of, well, a locomotive, enhanced by Flavia Sorrentino’s wonderfully charming illustrations, which do a good job in echoing the book’s quirky nature.
The Train to Impossible Places by PG Bell is a great start to what looks to be a great Children’s Sci-Fi/Fantasy series. Next stop: The Great Brain Robbery, due to arrive in October 2019.
The Train to Impossible Places