Title: The Peculiar
Author: Stefan Bachmann
Genre: Children's Fantasy/ Steampunk
“Part murder mystery, part gothic fantasy, part steampunk adventure.” reads the back inset of the book’s dust jacket. It’s a fitting description for The Peculiar, written by Stefan Bachmann; a children’s novel set in a tangibly familiar, yet utterly different England from the one we know.
I’ll admit, it was the clockwork sparrow on the cover which drew my attention just as much as the blurb on the back: ‘Child Number Eleven is everything. Everything we hoped…’ Having only been a fan of the steampunk genre for a short time, I am intrigued by each new book which comes out bearing that brand. Many of the steampunk books I have picked up proved to be worthless—either in content or in style—and so I was pleasantly surprised when The Peculiar scooped underneath my ideas of good steampunk and braced them with iron and stone. The first few chapters of the book were dark enough that I almost reconsidered the reading, but I stuck with it and read on and was not disappointed.
Bartholomew Kettle is a Peculiar, also called a changeling, due to his English mother and faerie father, and he lives in hiding and in fear of being found out. No one likes changelings. Not the fay. Not the humans. Bartholomew and his younger sister Hettie do not belong. The two children and their mother scrape out a living in the city of Bath, the place where the faeries came first. They hide and pretend to themselves that all is right in the world when all is, in truth, very wrong.
Then the lady in plum arrives and steals away a changeling boy from across the street. Changeling bodies are found in the Thames. The faerie Bartholomew thought he would have as his friend turns out to be a bad one, creeping into the house and singing Hettie to sleep with nightmares. In London, Mr. Arthur Jelliby watches the faerie politician, Mr. Lickerish, stir dissent as news of the changeling fates reach Parliament’s ear. All Mr. Jelliby wants is to go home to his sweet wife and his meaningless parties and not be too noticeable or too involved. Then he meets the purple lady and she begs for his help and he finds he cannot do anything otherwise. When Bartholomew and Mr. Jelliby meet, they form a dubious alliance to stop Mr. Lickerish from doing…well, whatever it is they know him to be doing. With his coded messages, and meetings with dark fay, and turning Mr. Jelliby’s own house against him, whatever the politician is up to, it’s not good. It might not even be politics.
And then Hettie is taken and the game changes. Bartholomew is desperate to get her back and Mr. Jelliby is his best hope.
When I was reading this novel, there were several places were everything grew terribly dark and eerie, almost to the point where it would be downright creepiness. And then Mr. Bachmann offers an unexpected burst of humor—usually under the character of Mr. Jelliby—and the mood lightens and a lamp flickers on somewhere.
I loved this book, the humor, the intrigue, the darkness of the faerie slums, the bright warmth of Mr. Jelliby and his good-hearted, somewhat-bumbling character. When all is said and done, I thoroughly enjoyed this children’s steampunk. Besides the excellent story, I liked it because of the lack of even one careless obscenity—a few mentions of ‘he swore/cursed’ are as close as the author ever ventured.
My one disappointment is that it ends on a cliffhanger. A cliffhanger where you think you know who this person is and what happens here but you’re not terribly sure. Then something twists and there is new light and new darkness and a million questions. And the book ends. Some cliffhangers seem to be penned only to draw the reader in for another book, another sale, a few more zeroes on the check. Others are written because one book cannot hope to hold the story due to the fact that it wants to keep going—and we writers are notorious for ending a book at its most exciting part just to cause our readers pain. The Peculiar, I’d like to think, was one of the latter, and I look forward to reading the next part of the story from this refreshing and riveting new talent, Mr. Stefan Bachmann.