The Keeper of Portals by V.S. Nelson. Book review

The Keeper of Portals by V.S. Nelson, Matador, 2017, £7.99

Reviewed by Sandra Unerman

After his father’s death, 16-year-old Martin and his mother move into an ancient house by the sea. The house is in ruins, empty for many years and liable to collapse because of erosion in the cliffs underneath. Inside, Martin encounters a mysterious being, the Keeper of Portals, who is responsible for doorways of all kinds and can make them open into different spaces. He takes Martin on an exploration of the house.

When the Keeper disappears, Martin goes through a blocked door and finds himself in the 17th century. There he meets Isabel, a servant girl under the control of a cruel Master, who turns out to be another Keeper, one who has turned evil. The Master has taken captive the Keeper of Portals and the Keeper of Time. As a result, objects can slip between time and doors open to the wrong places. Martin and Isobel must find a way to free the two Keepers and destroy the powers of the Master. They discover unexpected powers of their own, with which they jump forward to Martin’s time. but they have to go back to the 17th century to confront the Master and prevent chaos.

In Nelson’s universe, everything has a Keeper, all kinds of objects as well as abstract concepts. The Keepers are not gods but are brought into existence at the same time as whatever they control, with some being more powerful than others. Martin and Isobel have to come to grips with the laws of physics and other fundamental concepts in order to understand what each Keeper is responsible for and how to succeed in their adventures. The reader is challenged to puzzle out the possibilities along with them.

All the characters speak more or less modern English, although Isobel is allowed a few 17th century turns of phrase and words like ‘dullard’. I didn’t think she or Martin experienced a great enough culture shock when transferred to the other’s time. Both accept the situation with great calm, which allows them to get on with their adventures but doesn’t give the reader a strong feeling of the past and its differences from the present. Likewise, to my mind, Martin and his mother don’t worry enough about the dangers of their collapsing house, which prevents the reader from having a real sense of danger.

This is a book aimed at teenagers. Martin and Isobel both show courage and determination but must also apply their intelligence in an engaging way. Both have troubles from earlier in their lives, which add depth to their characters. The novel contains entertaining details about the activities of the Keepers and a vivid depiction of a journey through 17th century London. But above all, it is a fantasy which plays with ideas and encourages the reader to do the same.