Author: Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Genre: Science Fiction, Young Adult
Publisher: Amulet Books
Publication date: May 1st 2012
Hardcover: 354 pages
This dark and thrilling adventure, with an unforgettable heroine, will captivate fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance. On her 18th birthday, Lena Mattacascar decides to search for her father, who disappeared into the northern wilderness of Scree when Lena was young. Scree is inhabited by Peculiars, people whose unusual characteristics make them unacceptable to modern society. Lena wonders if her father is the source of her own extraordinary characteristics and if she, too, is Peculiar. On the train she meets a young librarian, Jimson Quiggley, who is traveling to a town on the edge of Scree to work in the home and library of the inventor Mr. Beasley. The train is stopped by men being chased by the handsome young marshal Thomas Saltre. When Saltre learns who Lena’s father is, he convinces her to spy on Mr. Beasley and the strange folk who disappear into his home, Zephyr House. A daring escape in an aerocopter leads Lena into the wilds of Scree to confront her deepest fears .
Stand alone or series: Stand alone
How did I get this book: Review copy via NetGalley
Why did I read this book: I first fell in love with the cover (although having now read the book, I realise it doesn’t depict the heroine at all) then with the idea and the promise: “This dark and thrilling adventure, with an unforgettable heroine, will captivate fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance”. I just HAD to read it.
Lena Mattacascar is a deeply troubled young woman whose father disappeared when she was young. Born with elongated hands and feet, she OFTEN (often!) wonders: are these signs of Goblinism? Is she then one of those Peculiar people? Do they even exist? Was her father really a Goblin as her grandmother likes to say? If so, is she destined to be a wicked, wicked girl since Peculiars are said to have no soul?
On her 18th Birthday, she is given a letter written by her father and decides to travel on her own to the northern wilderness of Scree, a place where Peculiars are said to inhabit, in search of answers. On the way there she meets a young librarian, Jimson Quiggley who is to work for the recluse inventor Mr Beasley. But then her purse and her money are stolen and she finds herself connected to the young marshall Thomas Saltre who makes an offer she can’t refuse: spy on the aforementioned Mr Beasley (what a coincidence!) and find out the strange goings on at his Zephir House and he will in return, help her get to Scree. But Mr Beasley turns out to be a kind man who offers her a job and Lena is then more troubled than never.
There is much I have to say about The Peculiars but unfortunately none of it is actually good.
Let me start by addressing the notion that this is Steampunk (as per the blurb): The Peculiars is not even remotely a Steampunk novel. There are a couple of innovative inventions created by Mr Beasley and mention of Zeppelins but these are not widespread enough to make it an effective part of the worldbuilding at all. Steampunk to me means that not only a world has these developed technological elements but they also must affect the world at large and the people who live in it. As I keep repeating whenever I see the label carelessly attached to just about any book with a dirigible: dirigibles do not Steampunk make!
That said, the premise of The Peculiars is interesting and at its heart, this is a coming of age novel in which its protagonist realises that yes, she is a Peculiar and that Peculiars are not soulless monsters. It very much aims to address the problem of nature x nurture, the question of prejudice and its messages are important ones: everybody is equal; your actions count in the end, etc. The potential for a great story is there but unfortunately this was done with no subtlety at all. Things are basically hammered all the way through. The main problem though is how despite the presence of a positive overall message, the way in which this is conveyed and ultimately executed made me uneasy. For example: the Peculiars are just like everybody but they underwent mutations (and there is some talk of Darwin in the story) and this is ok because Lena and Jimson find A Book (which is hinted to be a religious Book) which shows what seems to be the first man and woman with a baby who is a Goblin. So that’s how you see that being a Peculiar is ok: because it is in The Book. But that’s just for whites and Peculiars though – if you are say, Asian, you are unlucky. Take this quote from our heroine:
He was an Asian in a buckskin jacket, and he had a pale scar running the length of one cheek. Lena, who had never seen anyone from Asia up close before, suddenly remembered Nana Crane’s warnings about the dark alleys of Chinatown and young girls sold into white slavery.
What am I supposed to take from this? OK, Nana Crane is not exactly a perfect person , but this thought belongs to the heroine and there is no counterpoint to this point of view at all in the book. Zero, nada.
Furthermore, another thing that makes me uneasy is the ultimate resolution to one of Lena’s problems. You see, in this world, Peculiars are not considered full class citizens: they can only shop at certain times, they are persecuted as different, they are sent to Scree to work in mines and they are not allowed to own property. Lena’s father has left her a deed to a mine but in the end, she decides to pass the mine’s ownership to a non-Peculiar man because that would solve her problems and help a bunch of Peculiars. I have no problem with this resolution in principle as if written well, this could prove to be a moment of great conflict for the heroine and for the Peculiars emphasising the crap conditions in which they live and the fact that they have not much of a choice. But our heroine is EXALTED for carrying on with this action because it is for the greater good or some such thing and it proves once and for all that she has a soul and is a good person. There is no questioning about the implications of this act at all – the person who has no rights, who is considered second-class citizen depends wholly and completely on the (male, white) character for her very survival and she is EXALTED for taking that course of action. As Mr Beasley is exalted for helping her (he also helps other Peculiars by operating on them – removing their wings for example).
Which brings me to how Lena is basically an Excepto-girl (as coined by Book Gazing). Even though she is always down on herself because she is SO different from other girls and doesn’t follow “normal” womanhood, her romantic interest repeats all the time how unique and awesome she is because she is so different – and therefore better – than other girls. The book is punctuated with problematic things like:
“girls aren’t generally interested in these things” and she is not an “ordinary girl who talks about marriage and clothes”. She is not a normal woman because a normal woman would never “relish sleeping in her clothes or flying in a homemade contraption”. Being brave is also not desirable in women, no lady would ever whistle, “women are more sympathetic to those in need” and so on and so forth.
In the end she embraces her “peculiarities” but not because they are all equally positive aspects of womanhood but because they make her special.
Add to that the fact that the plotting is so contrived and the narrative itself uneven (at the start there are flashbacks and memories in first person and then they just disappear completely from the narrative) and you just have a mess of a book I wish I hadn’t wasted my time reading.
Notable Quotes/ Parts: Nah, sorry.
Rating: 2 – Waste of time
Reading Next: Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig
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