Thursday, 3 December 2009

Review: The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade

The mysterious Mr. Socrates rescues Modo, a child in a traveling freak show. Modo is a hunchback with an amazing ability to transform his appearance, and Mr. Socrates raises him in isolation as an agent for the Permanent Association, a spy agency behind Brittania's efforts to rule the empire. At 14, Modo is left on the streets of London to fend for himself. When he encounters Octavia Milkweed, another Association agent, the two uncover a plot by the Clockword Guild behind the murders of important men. Furthermore, a mad scientist is turning orphan children into automatons to further the goals of the Guild. Modo and Octavia journey deep into the tunnels under London and discover a terrifying plot against the British government. It's up to them to save their country. (from book cover)

If you have read all of my earlier posts you will know by now that over the last year I have become a huge fan of the steampunk genre. I teach Design Technology and I have always loved designing and making things, and the steampunk ideal of creating things with cogs, brass and other recycled items really appeals to me. Add the nostalgic romanticism of steam power and this genre is right up my street. There really is so much in steampunk for boys to love!

There are many debates going on about whether some books billed as steampunk are actually steampunk. Surely there can be no doubting this book - it is set in Victorian times and there is much clockwork and steam driven technology throughout. Hell... the villainous society that plan to topple the British government in the story are even called the Clockwork Guild!! And how's this for the very first paragraph on the very first page to grab your attention and pull you in head first:

Six hunting hounds had perished in previous experiments. Dr. Cornelius Hyde crouched in the cellar of his manor staring over his spectacles at Magnus, the last surviving hound. The iron cage was sturdy, its door locked tight, and the dog looked healthy except for his drooping head. He had survived the operation that replaced his skull, jaws and teeth with metal, but the weight of it all was too much for him to bear for long periods of time. He needed strength and ferocity. Soon, Hyde hoped, these needs would be dealt with. 

Up against the Clockwork Guild are the mysterious Permanent Society, headed up by the equally mysterious, and seemingly very cold, Mr Socrates (what a great name for such a character). At the beginning of the book Mr Socrates buys the hideously deformed Modo from a travelling sideshow; and it is Modo who really makes this book. If our hero had been another 'normal' boy or girl then the book just would not have been anywhere near as good; Modo makes it special. If you want a comparison then think Hellboy - he also is anything but conventional in his looks, but he has more than enough in his abilities to make him a hero. Modo is very similar: he is highly intelligent, he starts reading Shakespeare and learning the fighting arts from a very young age, and he has great strength and agility. And it is at this very young age that he starts his training as a future secret agent!

Mr Slade deals with Modo's deformities and his feelings about them in a way that really touches the heart of the reader; this book has an underlying moral that beauty is only skin deep, as Modo shows that his inner qualities are much more appealing traits than those shown by many of the adults we come across during the story. However, this isn't an 'in your face' moralistic story at all. The author somehow manages to make this book incredibly fast paced as well..... there is never a dull moment in this story and I very nearly read it in one sitting as I didn't want to put it down. Sometimes this fast paced action means that some settings lack the quality of descriptive writing that we have seen in recent books such as The Monstrumologist and Leviathan, but believe me, the action more than makes up for this in this opener to the series. Personally I feel that the book could have been made longer by about 100 pages, which would have allowed a greater degree of descriptive writing without detracting from the story or making it seem too long.

The author admits to being greatly influenced by Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame, as well as many other of the classics. In fact, Mr Slade has even written a letter of introduction to his readers, which I have cheekily copied from his website for you:

Dear Reader,
A few years ago I re-read Victor Hugo's The Hunchback of Notre-Dame and was consumed by the world of Quasimodo. It is a beautiful, heartbreaking novel and, like all good books should do, it got me thinking: what is it about the other that we fear? Why do we sometimes look away from those with a handicap or disfigurement? Can we truly love someone for what we find inside them despite their appearance? What are the qualities of a hero? I couldn't get the Hunchback from my mind and toyed with the idea of a modern retelling of the story, but then decided that was not the right route--Hugo had already written a novel for the ages. But how about a novel influenced by his story? And then I imagined a hunchback child, born with the ugliness of Quasimodo, but with an interesting evolutionary trait--he is able to change his shape and look beautiful, look like other people, and fit in, but after a few hours his body returns to its previous ugliness. The character quickly took shape from there. I have a resolute fondness for the Victorian era. It seemed a time of vibrant imagination and endless possibility and the authors of that age created such wonderful literature: Jules Verne, Charles Dickens, H.G. Wells. Much of our modern day science fiction and fantasy draws its roots from those works. So it seemed the perfect era in which to place my re-imagined hunchback. He would need a father figure, of course, so I pictured a British lord finding the young child and raising him to be a spy for a secret organization. And so, Modo, the hunchback came to life. He is gentle, intelligent, trained for battle, yet a bookworm; ugly and beautiful, tough and idealistic. I've become quite attached to the young fellow. I hope you enjoy your acquaintance with him.
Arthur Slade

I think that sums up his thoughts and the tone of the story pretty well. Rumour has it that this is the first of a series of seven books. Brilliant! I can't wait to see how Mr Slade develops Modo, his fellow characters and their world further. I am sure his adventures against the Clockwork Guild will keep me, and many readers around the world, entertained over the next few years.

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