The Freaks are a band of misfits, trapped in a nightly Victorian sideshow. There's Wolf-girl, Sheba, with her amazing sense of smell; Sister Moon, who can move at the speed of light; and Monkey Boy, ace climber and human stink bomb. But during the day, the Freaks decide to put their extraordinary talents to use. And in a world of child-snatchers, grave robbers and dastardly doctors, they solve the mysteries no one else cares about, including why London's poorest children are being snatched from the banks of the Thames.
Towards the end of last year I received an envelope full of A4 full colour, glossy press cards from the lovely people at Chicken House, and this one leapt out at me for three reasons: the book title, the cover and then the blurb. Chicken House had one their job well - they had me securely hooked, reeled in and left waiting for it to be released. Long time readers of The Book Zone will know I am a big fan of books set in the Victorian era, especially those promising a mystery needing to be solved, and with the added element of the freaks I knew I wanted to read this book well before Kieran Larwood wrote a short piece about it for my Coming Up In 2012 feature.
Freaks is an exciting, fun mystery story, perfect for 10+ readers, and the second book I have read recently that I think would translate brilliantly to the comic book format. The freaks of the books title are like a team of Victorian X-Men, each with his or her own unique gifts, that are sadly viewed as mutations or aberrations of nature by the general public. There is Sheba, the wolf girl, whose skin is covered in fine hair; Monkey Boy, one of the most disgusting characters I have read in a children's book for some time, who has a tail and can climb like an ape; Sister Moon, kick-ass ninja girl; Mama Rat, and her colony of performing rats; and the very large, and superhumanly strong, Gigantus.
Despite the book following the adventures of the team of freaks as they attempt to discover who is abducting the young Mudlarks from the banks of the Thames, this book is very much Sheba's story. We first meet her in Pilchton-on Sea, confined to a cage in a run down, seaside freak show (or what is left of it). Sheba is very much more than a girl covered with hair though - she is intelligent, has taught herself to pick locks and has a sense of smell to rival a bloodhound.
Other than a spell in a workhouse, Sheba has next to no memory of who she is, where she came from, who her parents were, or if Sheba is even her real name. She is little more than a slave, forced to 'perform' for anyone who was bored enough to pay a penny to view her and the two-headed sheep she shares a shack with, and the future looks bleak and lonely until she is sold to another freak show owner and finds herself heading for London. Although technically still a slave, at least she is no longer alone, as she finds herself in the company of the aforementioned freaks. And it isn't long before the team find themselves up to their necks in mystery - a hunt to find missing children that belong to some of the poorest and most destitute families living in London. A mystery that will have them fighting for their lives against a gang of rather nasty villains (Kieran Larwood does very bad villains).
Freaks is pretty much everything a 10 year old reader could ask for in a story. First up, it is funny, exciting and nail-biting in equal measures, with a plot that races along without being overfilled with action scenes. The characters are wonderfully realised, and I hope there will be a sequel so that we can find out even more about the various 'freaks'. Kieran Larwood also brings Victorian to life in a way that will have young readers finding it easy to imagine the sights, sounds and smells of the city as it was back then.
My thanks go to the good people at Chicken House for sending me a copy to review.