Blog Tour: Nevertell by Katharine Orton.
What she pulled out looked like a beaded necklace with a pendant attached – except, instead of a pendant, it was some gnarled old piece of wood, or stone. It was rough, pockmarked and warm. It shimmered in the dim light – like the snow did, sometimes, in the moonlight. She’d never known a stone do that before.
(Nevertell by Katherine Orton. P41.)
Eleven-year-old Lina has never seen life beyond the prison camp where she has grown up. She is used to seeing people on the verge of starvation and to the cruelty to the guards, including Commandant Zima who is rumoured to be her father. Then Lina joins an escape party and is followed by her best friend Bogan.
Lina has one mission – to survive the journey and find the grandmother she has never known.
Beyond the camp is a snowy Russian wilderness and a hint of something magical. Stories of a vengeful sorceress with a pack of shadow wolves are rife, but such stories are dangerous in Soviet Russia. Is there any truth to them? If so, does this sorceress have the power that the stories claim?
A lyrical tale about survival, friendship and the power of magic.
Occasionally you open a book expecting it to be one thing and find out it is a totally different story. And that actually the story you never expected was a valuable and magical experience. This is how I felt about Nevertell. From the cover I predicted something akin to Sky Song but with a real-world setting. Instead I found a historical novel with magic so subtle it is closer to magical realism. A lyrical tale about the power of stories and magic against real-life atrocities.
Lina and Bogdan are the only children in a Soviet labour camp. Lina was born there. Bogdan looked older and stronger than his age and was brought in with his parents. The scenes in the work camp are sensitively told and only show what is relevant to Lina and Bogdan’s story. The thing which will stay with me is the suspense. Katherine Orton creates an atmosphere in which the reader, as well as the characters, constantly expects an attack from the Secret Police, or from the criminals who are part of Lina’s escape party.
Svetlana the sorceress is like no ice queen you have ever met before. Yes, she has the same trappings – a cape and a palace of ice guarded by a great animal – but the emotional truth of her story and her conflicting nature make her a different and extremely complex character.
Lina is conflicted about what she needs to do most – escape and find the grandmother she never knew or return to the camp to help her mother who was left behind. To choose her path she must first learn about the world outside the camp and the secrets of her own past.
It is lovely to see a story where the genres merge. Does this belong closer to Emma Carroll in categorisation or is it more Abi Elphinstone? Or next to a lyrical writer like Amy Wilson. In the end, the category doesn’t matter. It is the story that counts, and this is a tale with rounded characters and rich and beautiful writing. Follow Lina and Bogdan on their journey and find out the deepest truth about fairy tales and imagination.
Q&A with Katherine Orton –
Q. In Lina’s world fairy tales are dangerous and telling them can result in the death penalty. Can you explain her feelings when she is first confronted with them? Why did you want to explore this conflict?
A. It’s not quite as harsh as the death penalty, but fairy tales are forbidden – and Lina is as sceptical as everyone else at first. One character called Old Gleb who’s with Lina in the prison camp she was born in believes in spirits and the supernatural, and people have always just dismissed him. But Lina soon comes face to face in the most dangerous way possible with things she thought could only exist in fairy tales – and it shakes her whole world. Not that she has time to be too shocked, or even afraid: her main concern is to survive.
I wanted to explore this because I actually discovered via an amazing book called Inside the Rainbow, and the foreword by Philip Pullman, no less, that fairy tales of the magical variety really weren’t supposed to be told to children in the Soviet Union at one point. It got me wondering about who gets to decide what’s real and what’s not, why it matters, and even how the beings of a magical world might react to such a decision. That was what truly sparked Nevertell into life. (No one was ever put to death over it as far as I know, though, thank goodness).
Q. Magic in your world ranges from spirit-like shadow wolves to magical plants. What sort of magic was the most fun to imagine and write?
A. I truly loved the wolves. But the idea of being able to grow plants with willpower and with touch… I think that was probably my favourite to both imagine and write. I wanted to be a gardener myself at one point (along with a whole load of other things – paramedic, stained glass window maker, archaeologist. The list goes on…) so it’s something that speaks to me. Imagine having that connection with the natural world, and also having such a useful skill! Just think what someone could do for people with that ability, how they might affect the world. And that’s something Lina definitely begins to think about as the story goes on.
Q. Your title, Nevertell, refers to something Lina hears whispered by a spirit. What does this word hint at?
I think that might be telling, haha! Let’s just say that it refers to a few different things. The truth about what happened between the spirit – a ‘shadow’ as they’re known in the book – and the sorceress, Svetlana, who’s been so fanatical about pursuing Lina and her best friend, Bogdan, without us really knowing why. But it’s also a reference to this idea that fairy tales aren’t allowed, and to the reasons that might be.
Q. What sort of challenges did you face in writing an ice queen?
A. I found it hard to make her scary enough at first, because to be totally honest I sympathised with her in lots of ways! (I know that sounds slightly worrying for an ice queen…). But once I’d realised that her character needed work, I had ridiculous amounts of fun making her really fierce and cold and terrifying. And getting her to do some really awful things, of course.
Q. You have mixed fantasy with a story about a very difficult piece of history. What do you think fantasy can offer in terms of telling these very real stories?
A. Fantasy, I think, is a powerful tool for making sense of the world. We start out as children learning through play and I don’t think that ever really stops – or at least I don’t believe it ought to. To me, fantasy is a safe place in which to process very real ideas and feelings, to learn, experiment, stretch our minds and foster emotions. This balance only works of course alongside sound, careful and respectful research into the real aspects of the story, however, and that’s something I took seriously, so I hope I was able to manage the balance.
Q. Your story has a strong sense of suspense and keeps the readers turning the pages. How did you create this in your writing?
A. Firstly it’s great to hear that you felt that. I think I just asked myself what I would want to read, and the answer was: something exciting. So I put a lot of thought into how to achieve that, and then went back over the drafts (and so did my editors!) to tighten it and to look for places where I could ramp up the tension even more. Ending the chapter at a really tense moment was something I enjoyed doing a lot. It felt a bit cheeky. I just kept asking myself, what would make this more exciting? What would make me want to keep reading?
Thank you for having me on your blog, Louise, and for your brilliant questions!
My copy of Nevertell was gifted by Walker Books LTD as part of a promotional blog tour. Opinions remain my own. Thanks to Katharine Orton for your time and wonderful answers.