The Last Chance Hotel was the winner of the Times/Chicken House Children’s Fiction Award in 2016 and is the debut novel from Nicki Thornton. There are plenty of children’s books around at the moment that have a murder that an amateur sleuth has to solve. What made this one stand out for me was the magical element. What Nicki Thornton has created is an Agatha Christie style murder-mystery and then interwoven her own blend of the best bits of magic of the Harry Potter books and it makes for an enjoyable read.
Seth Seppi is an orphaned child who is the put-down-up-on kitchen boy at the Last Chance Hotel. His father used to be the chef at the hotel and people would venture from afar to try his fabulous cooking. But with his father now dead, Seth finds himself stuck in a hopeless situation, living a lonely life with no friends, no relations and no money. He dreams of being a brilliant chef like his father and, rather than trying out his recipes in secret, longs for a way out of the hotel but his dreams are rapidly fading and he seems destined for a life pot-scrubbing. Seth is needed yet unwanted. Henri, the chef, and hotel owners Mr & Mrs Bunn bark orders at him, and the Bunn's daughter, Tiffany, is out to make Seth’s life as hard as possible. When a group of magicians arrive at the hotel for a secret meeting the excitement rises and Seth could do with conjuring some magic of his own to help him complete all his duties. Things then take a sinister turn as a meeting behind a locked door, and a specially made desert lead to the poisoning of Dr. Thallomius and all the evidence points to Seth as the culprit. A murder investigation begins and as the story progresses things become darker as more is revealed about the magicians and the magic lurking in the hotel walls. With several individuals having good reason to want rid of Dr. Thallomius and with everyone seemingly up to something, Seth struggles to navigate his way through a tangled web of lies and dangerous truths and it looks as is if he is destined to spend a life behind bars unless he can prove his innocence.
Whilst the story is light-hearted and a great deal of fun, the theme of loneliness is explored in this narrative through the eyes of orphan, Seth, and we see how lonely the world can feel when no-one is looking out for you. We all feel alone at times and we search for solace and comfort in anything we can, and for Seth it is in his cat Nightshade. The theme is developed further throughout the story and despite the doom and gloom surrounding Seth, Thornton shows us that how the smallest gesture and positive comment can make even the loneliest feel valued. The issue of bullying is also highlighted in the form of Tiffany, Mr & Mrs. Bunn’s horrible daughter, who takes advantage of Seth and uses him for her own benefit. She is an example of how the constant belittling of someone can lead to them accepting their situation to the point that they no longer stand up for themselves. What we learn from Seth is that in life we should never stop dreaming and searching for something better, however hard that may be.
Thornton has created the beginnings of an intriguing magical world with plenty of magical objects, unusual magicians, secret agents and original magic talents. The bizarre names of some of the magicians may be a challenge for some readers and I would encourage them not be deterred by this. For those readers familiar with the world of Harry Potter, many of the objects will have a ring of familiarity about them but I like the assortment of magical objects that Thornton has created - divinoscope, teleglobe, ruhnglas, wordstone, firefly cage - to name a few. There is a blend of magic to appeal to all and I enjoyed how card tricks to potions to bottling bird song are all part of the narrative.
I really enjoyed the book but I do have a few niggles with it. I am sympathetic to Seth’s plight but I do find him infuriating as he does come across as a bit dim and knows nothing at all. His cat, Nightshade, is more aware of the goings on at the hotel. I wasn’t excited by the inclusion of a teleport or perhaps it was the use of the phrase teleport. Teleport seemed too much of a stretch from the magical world and more associated with science fiction. Portkey and apparate from the Harry Potter books just seem like a much more magical way to travel from one place to another. I also felt the ending was a bit too rushed and I would have liked more to have been included on Seth’s family history. There is a sequel, The Bad Luck Lighthouse, so I’m hoping I get the answers to some of my many questions.
A fun read for amateur sleuths and wanna-be magicians. Whilst we might not all possess a magical library card, in the words of Angelique Squerr, “There is nothing so brilliant as the wonders you’ll find in a book.”
Recommended for 8+.