Nevertell: Occasionally rises above its mostly solid nature

Nevertell, by Katharine Orton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsNevertell, by Katharine Orton science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsNevertell by Katharine Orton

Nevertell (2020), by Katharine Orton, is an engaging if somewhat limited Middle Grade book set in the wild north of Stalinist Russia and focused on a young girl trying to escape a brutal work camp and make her way south to Moscow and the grandmother she’s been told would be able to take her in.

Twelve-year-old Lina was born in the camp (her father is rumored to be the cruel commandant Zima) that her grandfather, mother, and uncle had been brought to years earlier. Only she and her mother Katya have survived, and when a trio of prisoners come up with a desperate escape plan, Katya provides the distraction that allows them, along with Lina’s best friend Bogdan, to get beyond the fence and into the frozen Siberian woodland. The weather is deadly enough, but the forest is also home to a powerful sorceress known as the “Manhunter.” And Lina and Bogdan’s fellow prisoners may not be any safer.

Lina is an easy character to root for: determined, brave, compassionate, able to show empathy even for those one might think don’t deserve it. The other characters vary in their portrayal, with many of them coming off a bit flat or not fully realized. Bogdan is nice enough in that encouraging friend/moral support kind of way, but there’s little to him and the same holds true for a young girl they meet on their journey. The villains — some of the prisoners and Zima — are given hints of further depth, but those are mostly via throwaway lines, leaving them mostly two-dimensional. The one exception is an older prisoner who is granted some more emotional depth than the others, and I wish we’d seen more of him. As for the sorceress, she has some built-in complexity that reveals her to be more than a simple villain, but three issues arise with this. One is that one of those complexities is pretty transparent early on, though it only becomes a narrative revelation late in the book. To be fair, given the target audience, it’s more than a little likely that the preferred audience won’t see it as quite so obvious. Another issue is her responses feel a bit randomly generated as she veers wildly in tone and action. A bigger problem, and here I don’t want to go into too much detail to avoid spoilers, is that the worst thing she can be accused of isn’t exactly written off, but it is somewhat easily dismissed. I would have liked to have seen a bit more struggle with that.

Plotting is pretty quickly paced, and there are some well-done moments of suspense and/or action. Unfortunately, the big confrontation is a bit anti-climactic and, I’d say, is resolved a little too easily. While I liked the backdrop of Stalin’s purges, it’s somewhat roughly or lightly connected to events. It’s a young audience, yes, but I think Orton could have delved a bit more into the ideology and the events. The setting is nicely detailed, with Orton’s best work coming in her descriptions of the cold and snow and ice. The setting also provides for two of the more lyrically and emotional moments in the book, one involving the freezing of one’s breath and another involving two characters separated by ice, though that’s all I’ll say about either so as not to spoil their impact.

Nevertell is Orton’s debut novel, and it does show in its characterization and plotting to an extent. But she also provides some absolutely lovely images, some nicely lyrical language, and lots of potential in her warm, if a bit thin, portrayal of relationships that cross gender, age, and blood ties. Nevertell is a solid enough MG story that younger readers, especially, will probably enjoy if not love, but it also rises above that “solid” description enough times to bode well for Orton’s next effort.

Published in April 2020. A gorgeous, snowy adventure, set in the wilds of Siberia, full of magic and wonder, for junior readers. A world of magic is only a whisper away… Born in a Soviet prison camp, Lina has never seen the world outside until the night she escapes with her best friend, Bogdan. As the pair journey across a snowy wilderness, they are pursued by a vengeful sorceress and her pack of shadow wolves. The children will need every ounce of courage – and a whisper of magic – if they are to survive… Perfect for fans of Abi Elphinstone, Sophie Anderson and Catherine Doyle. 

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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