Bartholomew Kettle won’t live long. Changelings never do. The child of a human mother and a faery father, he is despised by both his races. But one day Bartholomew suddenly finds himself at the centre of a web of intrigue and danger that spans the entire country. A powerful figure sits in the shadows, pushing the pieces in place for some terrible victory. Something is coming for Bartholomew. But when you’re a changeling, there’s nowhere to run.
I'm not a great reader of fantasy stories that involve faeries, the fey, or whatever the mot du jour is to describe such otherworldly entities. They simply don't interest me, in the same way that dragons don't (and I appreciate that I may have just committed book blogging suicide with that latter confession). However, when I first read about Stefan Bachmann's The Peculiar I was intrigued enough to accept the kind offer of a review copy from the wonderful people at HarperCollins. Perhaps it was the use of the magic word in their publicity material (steampunk) combined with the illustration of a clockwork bird on the cover? And yes, I can be that shallow.
Whatever the reason was that made me give it a go is lost in the misty depths of my ageing memory, but I am glad I made that decision, as I really enjoyed this book, even though the steampunk elements take very much of a back seat in this story. In The Peculiar, which is the first in a series/trilogy (I'm not sure how many books there are planned), Stefan Bachmann has created an alternative England where humans coexist alongside the fey, and it was this alternative England, and the characters that the author has created within it, that had me so entranced as I read the book.
To keep things brief, a magical door once opened between England and the faery world. Large numbers of the fey crossed over into the human world, there was a big war, the door closed, and huge numbers of faeries were stranded in England. Now the majority of the faeries are treated as second class (or worse) citizens, working in poor conditions in factories, and living in faery ghettoes. Life is not easy for these people of the Old Country, but it is a damn sight worse for the changelings, those born half human and half faery. These 'creatures' are pretty much hated by both sides, and if discovered are more often than not put to death. Bartholomew Kettle, one of the protagonists of The Peculiar, is one such being, his long absent father being faery and his ever-worrying mother human. Bartholomew and his sister lead a sheltered life, often hidden away in their small abode in the faery slum that is Bath. Bartholomew can almost pass as human, and so gets out of the house a little more than his sister, who with branches growing out of her head, is very obviously not completely of our world. If caught outside by the wrong people, and recognised for what they are, they could find themselves dangling by their necks from a long rope.
I mentioned earlier that Bartholomew was one of the protagonists, and that is because the story follows the adventures of two characters, the other being a civil servant called Arthur Jelliby. Arthur is not your typical fantasy adventure hero, but we see his character grow and grow throughout the story, far more so in fact than that of Bartholomew. Both characters find themselves up against the evil machinations of one of the few faeries who has managed to work their way into a position of influence in the government - the very nasty Lord Chancellor Mr Lickerish. Lickerish has big plans, and aided by some pretty nasty and uber-creepy creatures (just watch out for the lady in the plum dress) things may not be too rosy for England in the not-too-distant future.
The Peculiar is a wonderful fantasy story for middle grade aged readers. The plot moves on at a cracking pace that draws the reader in and refuses to let them go (even this miserable old anti-faery story blogger), and I would imagine it would have a similar effect on readers much younger than me. He will have readers cheering on the good characters, and booing the bad, but none are in the slightest bit stereotypical or pantomime-like. There are also no lengthy passages of exposition at the beginning - Bachmann makes his readers work, creating mystery and wonder as they try to piece together the seemingly disparate plot strands and characters, and how they fit into the alternate England and its history. And Stefan Bachmann started writing this book in 2010, when he was only 16!
The book ends on a cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers. Seriously, cliffhangers don't get much bigger than this. So if you don't like endings like this then maybe best wait until the sequel is released as you will want to read them back-to-back. Me? I'm really looking forward to diving back into this richly imagined alternate Victorian England, with its clockwork birds and creepy faery creatures.