The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann--a murder mystery/alternate history/faery steampunk/brave brother/unwilling hero/utterly gripping story

I like the cover of The Peculiar, by Stefan Bachmann (Greenwillow, Sept 2012, middle grade)  very much--it is a most intriguing clockwork bird, and the feathers add a nicely mysterious touch.  What the cover does not convey is that this is a book about a 19th-century England in which the gates to the land of faery opened, and a vicious and bloody war resulted--the Smiling War, so called because of all the grinning skulls that covered the fields.   But fairy magic proved to be no match for the British military, and with the gate now closed again, the faeries had no choice but to remain in the human world...constrained both by laws and by the inimical effects of iron and church bells.

Yet some humans and some faeries found each other not unobjectionable....and Changeling resulted--Peculiar children despised by both races.  Bartholomew and his little sister, Hettie, are two such children, confined by their mother for their own protection to the inside of a rundown home in a marginal area of war-torn Bath, now a predominantly faery town.   Bartholomew can pass as human, from a distance; Hettie, with branches growing from her head instead of hair, is much too Peculiar...

But danger finds the two of them, nonetheless.  Nine changelings have been horribly murdered...and all unwillingly, and rather unwittingly,  Arthur Jelliby, a gentleman of means and a junior member of Parliament, finds himself embroiled by conscience and coincidence in keeping the tenth changeling alive.

And Barthlomew might be that child.  Or perhaps Hettie...little branch-haired Hettie, with her raggedy handkerchief doll, who can never play with other children...

Oh gosh, how to describe this murder mystery/alternate history/faery steampunk/brave brother/unwilling hero/utterly gripping story?

Perhaps it would give you some idea of the taste and texture of it if I said it reminded me at times of Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman, and Jonathan Stroud, with a generous dash of Diana Wynne Jones, but you have to add steampunk-ness.

I could tell you that Mr. Jelliby becomes lost in passageways that cannot exist, chases a mechanical bird across the streets of London, and is almost eaten by his furniture...and would much rather be sleeping late and drinking tasty drinks than actually doing anything forceful, but that makes him sound too absurd--he is a true hero.  I could say that Bartholomew is a boy scarred by loneliness and poverty, whose one sure place in the world is at his sister's side--almost pitiable, but without self-pity.   I cared, very much, for both these heroes...pitted against an enemy much more powerful, knowledgeable, and capable than either of them.

Because in this world where monsters and magic (beautiful and grotesque) and the steam stink of industry live side by side, there is a dangerous plot afoot that might bring about an even more destructive conflict between humans and faeries than the previous war.  With Bartholomew and Mr. Jelliby the only ones trying to stop it.

Short answer:  this was a truly excellent, gripping read that should utterly knock the socks of 11 to 13 year old readers, and if no one else nominates it for the Cybils (why has no one done so yet?) I will. 

Thank you so much, Maria, for passing on your ARC to me!!!


  1. I agree with your review. This was a fantastic story combining steampunk and fantasy in unique ways. It was interesting that it had Mr. Jelliby, an adult, as a main character. Not something you see in MG or YA. Thanks for the review.

  2. I love that cover too. Glad to hear the book lives up to it.

  3. Wow! That sounds amazing, and I could use an amazing book just now!

  4. Thanks for the recommendation. I'd never heard of this book or author. We all need a dose of steampunk every now and again...

  5. Oh yay--this one's in my TBR pile! Thanks, Charlotte.

  6. Okay, aside from the cover (I thought it was meh), I totally agree!

  7. This sounds awesome! I will put it on my wish list right now!

  8. I hope you all who haven't read it enjoy it as much as I did!

  9. Great review, and I agree with your comparison authors. The beginning reminded me of Natalie Babbitt, and then it just spiraled out of control!


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