© Jordan B. Nielsen, 2012

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The Peculiar

By Stefan Bachmann

Reviewed by Jordan B. Nielsen    

Recommended for: Both boys and girls, ages 10 and up if they’re particularly strong readers, but more generally, 12 and up for moderate violence against children and overall complexity of plot.

One Word Summary: Cinematic.

Eighteen year-old Stefan Bachmann said that when he was sixteen and began writing The Peculiar he simply wanted to create a story that he would have loved when he was a kid. Having read those words in a letter from the publisher of Greenwillow Books in the first pages of my advanced reader copy of Bachmann’s work, I began sharpening my knives. The cover is, after all, emblazoned with praise from Christopher Paolini, another child prodigy whose Eldest series I (and many) found to be so derivative of the greatest works in children’s fantasy that it bordered on outright plagiarism. Was this Bachmann yet another precocious wunderkind here to ply us with a literary piecemeal patchwork, remarkable only for its author’s youth?

Within pages the answer was clear: No. Where Paolini’s books redundantly trod through the paces of classic children’s literature, The Peculiar took flight in a new direction, full of joy and alive with a palpable sense of the author’s delight.

The Peculiar takes place in a re-imagined version of industrial era England in which humans live alongside several races of faerie whom they’ve subjugated. The first chapter presents us with a history in which the city

of Bath was consumed by hoards of vicious fae folk who tumbled from a portal in the sky one day. The city was overtaken, the people slaughtered, and the door through which the faeries entered our world disappeared. Whether by design or by accident no one could say for sure, but these savage bands of gnomes, goblins, elves and more were clearly now here to stay. A successful counter attack was launched by the humans, but once the faeries were subdued the question became, what to do with these multitudes of strange, violent, altogether sentient creatures who were now stranded in our world?

Now in the story’s present we find the faeries living as an exploited underclass. While several of the more culturally assimilated fae folk hold offices within the British Parliament, the majority of them live in slums, outcast and virtually enslaved. Bartholomew Kettle, a little boy living in one of Bath’s faerie ghettos, occupies the lowest rung on the societal totem pole: he and his little sister Hettie are changelings, half human, half faerie, and rejected by both races as an abomination. Their human mother has raised them ever since their fae father ran off

one day, and she insists that the children live in near total isolation, always in hiding for fear of being caught and hanged by a mob. But one day, Bartholomew witnesses something terrible. From his little attic window, the changeling boy watches as a human woman dressed all in purple abducts another changeling boy who lives in a house across the way. She disappears in a torrent of black feathers leaving only a faerie ring of mushrooms behind her.

In London we meet Arthur Jelliby, a kindly, doddering fellow who happens to be a member of Parliament. Hapless and lacking in ambition, Jelliby was perfectly content to simply enjoy the perks of his position and remain largely ineffectual. But of course, one day his destiny finds him. The bodies of changeling children have been washing up on the shores of the Thames river, hollowed out and covered in strange markings. While certainly sorry about this, Jelliby has had little contact with fae folk, outside of his seldom associations with John Lickerish, a faerie and a fellow member of Parliament. While at Lickerish’s house for a routine courtesy meeting, Jelliby stumbles upon evidence that implicates Lickerish in a conspiracy relating to the dead changeling children and finds he can no longer hide behind his waffling docility. 

What is Lickerish up to? Who is the woman in purple? What purpose do these dead children serve? How long will the faeries sit idly by in a society that abhors them? Questions abound.

The Peculiar, in spite of its dark premise, is a tremendous amount of fun, thanks entirely to the spirit that Bachmann infuses it with. This is a sooty, dangerous, rancorous world, but also is one that buzzes with magic and fascination. He has a stellar talent for evocative names and objects. Bachmann’s descriptions of a faerie shop that contained things like ‘Sorrow Wine’ and ‘Distillation of Hate’, and candies that taste like ‘Starlight’ and ‘Icicles’ could have held my attention for whole chapters. The greatest strength of The Peculiar is the richness of its detail and how visual it is. I wanted to be inside this world and to see it with my own eyes because what I could see in my imagination was so clear and so exciting. It would make a fabulous movie and we can only hope that Martin Freeman will be available to take up the role of Arthur Jelliby, a part that seems nearly to have been written for him.

Bachmann is a very well informed writer, and I don’t just mean for his age. The complexities of the social structure of this world, and the political conspiracy that takes place within it are very sophisticated, drawing on real-world parallels from Apartheid to Colonialism. When the story drives the characters to ‘The Goblin Market’, a literal marketplace run by goblins, but also, a nod to Christina Rosseti’s 1862 narrative poem about human women falling pray to the seduction of the fae folk, my little Victorian Lit loving heart grew three sizes. I tip my cap to you, sir.

It wasn’t until I reached the last fifty pages of the book that I realized this was clearly meant to be the first in a series. My advanced copy made no mention of that fact, and I have to hope that the final printed book will be more explicit, for my only criticisms had to do with the book’s pacing. It seemed to take a very long time to get our main characters in the same place at the same time. Once they were united I felt I didn’t have enough time with them, as their dynamic was immediately engaging and pulled me deeper into the story. Similarly, I didn’t feel I had enough time with Bartholomew to really understand him. His thoughts and actions were predominantly tied to the main action of the plot, and I would have liked to have seen more of his character and personality under less dire circumstances. However, both of these criticisms are explained by the fact that the story is not yet finished.

A fresh, lilting, jubilant treat, The Peculiar is no childish rehashing. Bachmann’s story shares the same life-blood as all those stories he read and loved as a kid: an unfiltered sense of wonderment. 

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