In a word, The Peculiar is exactly what its title suggests. Set somewhere between historical fiction and fantasy, author Stefan Bachmann presents us with a discombobulating but tantalizing premise: for better or worse, fairies have portal-ed into England, destroying Bath and starting a war in the process. Though the English manage to defeat the fairies, they aren’t quite able to incorporate them into society. Some rise to power, like Mr. Lickerish, a sinister Sidhe (high fairy) who becomes Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. Some work in factories, live in slums, even use their magic to operate streetlamps or bewitch automatons. In short, fairies are feared and avoided, but here to stay, as evidenced by need for the term “peculiar,” which refers to the offspring of a fairy and a human.
The peculiar in question is one Bartholomew Kettle. All his life, he has been told by his mother, “don’t get yourself noticed and you won’t get hanged,” and for good reason, too. Lately, there have been a string of kidnappings ending in murders, all of them changelings, all of them children. Fished out of the river, their bodies are strangely hollow. But these grim occurrences, combined with the recent disappearance of the peculiar boy next door, aren’t enough to deter Bartholomew from venturing outside to invite trouble his way.
Meanwhile, down in London, Arthur Jellisby, a wishy-washy, bumbling junior member of the Parliament, accidentally overhears a conversation concerning the peculiar kidnappings. This leads him on a wild goose–or should I say, mechanical flying bird–chase to uncover a plot that turns out to be so much larger than kidnappings and murder. All of England is in peril. Along the way, he crosses paths with Bartholomew, whose sister, also a peculiar, is the next child to have gone missing.
To tell the story, Bachmann cuts between Bartholomew and Mr. Jellisby’s POVs. Unfortunately, this means we know much more at every given moment than either character does regarding who’s behind the murders and who’s the next victim. This not only kills the suspense but makes their every action seem like they’re perpetually walking into traps. Another small quibble about the writing: I quickly got tired of reading descriptions about characters’ eyes, which would gleam, glisten, widen, narrow, or go flat at every change in emotion. Even so, the characters still seemed rather one-note to me. Reluctant hero Mr. Jellisby spent most of his time as a foppish impersonation of Bertie Wooster, although he occasionally proves he’s made of sterner stuff. Meanwhile, Lord Chancellor Mr. Lickerish oozes campy villainy and nobody around him notices.
I also found myself wishing for more of Bartholomew’s back story. In a culture that is so suspicious of fairies and hostile towards changelings, why did Bartholomew’s mother have two peculiar children? Why did Bartholomew’s Sidhe father leave them? And how does Bartholomew feel towards his mother and absent father about this? Not only are these questions left unanswered, it’s as if they have no bearing on his character and psyche While I’m glad he’s not the angsty type, it makes Bartholomew’s completely lack of curiosity, consideration, and resentment over the circumstances of his existence hard to buy. Perhaps that’s why his eleventh hour epiphany about why he will bother to save the whole world, even at the risk of his sister’s life, failed to make such an impression on me.
Still, I did think it was brave of Bachmann to have Bartholomew’s rescue plan goes awry, but it also means this book is merely the elaborate set-up for a sequel.
SPOILERS: my sequel predictions, assuming The Peculiar is meant to be a trilogy:
Book one: close the portal.
Book two: open the portal.
Book three: close the portal again.