This is a Cybils Award finalists in the middle grade science fiction/fantasy department, one of only two on this year’s that I’ve read. I feel like I read a fair amount of mg fantasy last year – but I have several more titles to add now! This is also the book that came from the library with the last 30 pages missing – I had to take it back and wait for it to be reordered before I could finish it! Worse yet, I wasn’t the first to check it out, so I pity the first few people to try to read it.
The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann
Not so very long ago, the Faeries invaded the human world, and there was war. The humans won, but as the faery stayed in the first place because they couldn’t get back, they now have an uneasy coexistence with iron and church bells used to constrain the faeries. Both sides despise the other and despise worst of all the changelings or peculiars, half-breed children. (Were there ever truly loving inter-species relations, or only short seductions? The story doesn’t address this.) One of our heroes, Bartholomew, is just such a child. He himself could pass for human, but his little sister Hettie has pointed ears and branches for hair. Both of them stay hidden, as the hatred of peculiars is so deep that lynchings are common. One day, watching from his attic window in a Bath slum, Bartholomew sees a sinister lady in plum velvet with a tiny, wicked face in the back of her head. As he watches, she draws the little neighbor changeling with thistle hair out of his house, and disappears with him in a flurry of black feathers. When Bartholomew’s good intentions go awry, he knows that he and Hettie are in danger as well. Meanwhile, in London, Mr Jelliby is a wealthy and idle member of the Privy Council, which includes some faery members. His conscience is pricked, however, when he watches the faery Mr Lickerish redirect council interest away from the mysterious string of murdered changeling children. As much as he fears trouble, he is drawn into investigating the murders himself. There are some steampunk aspects to the book as well, with a setting that feels 19th-century and clockwork birds used to communicate, clockwork horses, and a dirigible. This is dark fantasy with a whole lot of creepy mystery that kept me on the edge of my seat, and occasionally made me decide to save this for morning and pick something calmer for bedtime reading. It’s definitely not a world I’d want to live in, but it’s beautifully drawn, with characters and setting having equal importance to the exciting plot. I cared about both Bartholomew and Mr Jelliby. I will note that even with the last 30 pages, it does not end conclusively, so those who like to wait until a series is complete to start reading will want to hold off for a bit. There is a whole lot to like packed neatly and cleverly into this book, and I am very glad that it made it to the second round of Cybils considerations.