The Haven by Simon Lelic

The Blurb On The Back:

Underneath the city there exists a secret organisation.

It’s called The Haven – a sanctuary for kids run by kids, with an investigation team that fights for justice everywhere. 

Alone and on the run, 13-year-old Ollie Turner is taken in by The Haven – and finds himself in a world of danger and adventure he could never have imagined …

You can order THE HAVEN by Simon Lelic from Amazon USAAmazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

13-year-old Oliver “Ollie” Turner has lived with his guardian, Detective Inspector Nancy Bedwin, for the last 6 years after his parents died in a terrorist attack in London.  But when a group of men burst into their house in the middle of the night and kidnap the pair, Oliver’s life changes dramatically again.  Their kidnapper is Maddy Sikes, a criminal mastermind who Nancy’s been investigating and who’s determined to eliminate the thorn in her side, even if it means turning Ollie into collateral damage.

Fortunately, Nancy is able to help Ollie to escape their cell and he’s further aided by 15-year-old Dodge, a member of the investigations unit of The Haven – an underground organisation run by kids that protects children who fall through the cracks – who’s discovered that Sikes has recently received a mysterious consignment of goods and wants to know what it is.  Ollie doesn’t want to stay with the Haven but he does want to get justice for Nancy and to stop Sikes from hurting anyone else.  But London is a tinder box as someone is kidnapping members of a number of its various criminal gangs and Sikes’s plans more deadly than Ollie or the Haven could ever imagine …

Simon Lelic’s children’s book for readers aged 11+ (the first in a series) is a fast-paced and solid action thriller that has a neat underlying idea (an underground network of kids helping kids who the authorities let fall through the cracks) but the OLIVER TWIST references didn’t work for me, none of the characters have any depth and the plot is pure hokum that requires you to suspend your disbelief, although I’d probably check out the sequel.

I think the best thing about this book is the idea of an underground organisation of kids helping kids and Lelic does a lot of work in the book in terms of fleshing how this works.  Some elements of this work better than others, e.g. I liked the idea that kids can only stay until their 17th birthday, many go on to become successful adults who in turn fund and protect it but the idea of it hiding in plain site in a property near prime London real estate stretched credibility and I thought the idea of different teams within the group was a little cheesy.  The big problem though is that with the exception of Dodge, the individuals Ollie is introduced to are largely forgettable – defined either by their race or nationality (in the case of Song and Erik) or by their disability (in the case of Jack).  I also didn’t understand how the elderly Aunty Fay tied into things – presumably her blindness meant she wasn’t able to go off on her own or maybe her role in co-founding it meant she was the exception to the out-at-17 rule but it’s weird that it’s not expressly addressed.

The book literally opens with Ollie and Nancy in peril and that kind of opening creates immediate engagement and makes you want to know what to happen, although it does come at the expense of establishing Ollie and Nancy’s relationship, which is especially important given that Nancy’s death is supposed to be Ollie’s driving motivation for assisting the Haven.  To some extent Ollie and Dodge’s relationship makes up for that and I liked the easy camaraderie that develops between the two, assisted by the fact that Dodge has a rough charisma on the page that makes him trustworthy.  

The pacing works well and Lelic keeps the action coming but there are times when I felt that it just tried too hard, e.g. the never ending henchmen, antagonist Maddy Sikes’s constant need to whack people (which I think was meant to be shocking but didn’t really carry much pack).  Sikes herself is utterly two-dimensional – there’s not a lot of depth here and she has the kind of endless financial resources and inability to show anything akin to a human emotion that might scare the target readers but left me a little blah.  I have to say that I really didn’t understand the fascination she seems to develop for Ollie – it seems purely there as a plot point – and the only thing she seems close to is her savage dog, Bullseye.

This brings me to the OLIVER TWIST allusions that the character names represent.  I’ll put my hands up and say that I just didn’t get the point of it because it seems, to me, to be too much of a sign post for the characters and their respective fates – especially when it comes to a twist at the end of the book, which I think savvy readers will foresee before Lelic gets there.

Ultimately if this all sounds like I’m very down on the book, then I should say that I’m not.  It’s a perfectly okay read – younger readers would probably enjoy it – but it is quite formulaic and doesn’t really take that neat central idea anywhere or bring any depth to it.  I also think it’s hampered by the development it takes at the end of the book, which had me raise my eyebrows because it’s so pat and doesn’t make a load of sense.  However I will check out the sequel to see where Lelic takes it next. 

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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