Malice in Underland

Authored by Jenni Jennings
Illustrated by Hannah Peck
Published by Scholastic

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Malice in Underland is a tongue-in-cheek mystery is that, while intriguing throughout,  never feels heavy or threatening, there’s not even a bad guy to speak of. It’s from this Addams-Family-esque premise that this book draws its wonderfully playful lightness.

Being afraid of the dark is pretty common. For most people who shy away from shadow, it stems from a fear of the unknown. But the thing about the unknown is that you don’t actually know it’s scary. What if the world of ghouls and ghosts and goblins was actually – while weird – pretty welcoming?

It tells of the adventures of Malice Malign, the daughter of a family of ‘Underlanders’ who run an agency that places ghosts in abodes that need a good – or rather dastardly – haunting. While her family revels in mildly diabolical deeds, Malice is almost Matilda-like in maintaining her moral steadfastness.

She is not the only Malign to shun the family trade, she keeps good company with her ghostly grandfather and private detective uncle. It is when the former mysteriously vanishes that she and her uncle Vex head into Underland to save him and uncover the mystery behind a spate of ghost-nappings.

The tone is perfectly captured by Hannah Peck’s fun illustrations, which are scattered throughout. The subjects may be creatures that go bump in the night but they are all shown to be doing so with a smile on their faces.

The decision to split the world into Topside and Underland is an inventive one and the description of this subterranean civilization is brilliant. I was very taken by the description of the sky being a tangle of tree roots, lit by luminescent bugs. Underland, with its hustle and bustle, is reminiscent of of child-friendly version of London Below from Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, particularly in its era and culture hopping.

Jenni Jennings’s middle-grade debut – she has previously written adult works – Malice in Underland seems to have a dual purpose, to tell the tale at hand but also to set up a series, the second of which is already on the way. It does the latter well, introducing a range of characters who I would love to see more of. There seems particular potential in Malice’s oddball best friend Seth and in her vicious younger sister Antipathy-Rose.

It would also be fascinating to see Malice in Topside – most of this story takes place in Underland. While Underlanders are aware of Topsiders and thus are largely accepting of Malice’s tics, she would seem far more fish-out-of-water in settings such as school and it would be interesting to see her navigate the challenges this would pose.

Malice herself is a wonderful character, sharp, witty and determined. She makes short work of the mystery before her, honing in on every clue and overcoming all obstacles. Her open heart and innocent mischief mean you root for her from the first page. Her arrow-like focus gives the narrative a strong drive – there are no red-herrings here – and it flies fairly straight and true from start to finish.

This would be a great book to read aloud to any KS2 class, particularly Y3 and 4, and would be accessible as an independent read for children from year four upwards. With its rollicking humour and gentle adventure, it cannot fail to raise a smile from any reader and the series is sure to become a favourite beside other gothic-tinged series such as Starfell and Ottoline.

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