Freaks, by Kieran Larwood (Scholastic, middle grade, March 2013)
Kept in cage in a dingy sea-side town, and exhibited to the gawking, jeering, 19th-century English public, Sheba knows there's no place for her in the real world. She is a "wolf-girl"--more than just being covered with fur, strong emotion causes wolfish changes to her body.
And when the freak show arrives in London, Till, a poor urchin girl, sneaks in to see the show. She and Sheba form an instant bond. When Till never returns from a stint of trash picking in the tidal cess-swamps of the Thames, the Peculiars take on the case.
Turns out a steam-punk robotic octopus is rising from the mud to grab hapless children....and the master-mind behind its operations wants the children for Darkly Sinister Purposes (!). Gradually the Peculiars piece together the clues that lead them to Prince Albert's Crystal Palace at midnight to confront the villain head on--but can they foil the evil plot in time to save the children?
I found it a lot more engaging than I thought I might--I don't like 19th-century London, freak shows, or stereotypes of the Exotic (the broken of English of the lovely but deadly Sister Moon got on my nerves tremendously). And in this particular case, the plot seemed somewhat flimsy--the bad guys didn't seem competent or sensible enough to be worthy antagonists. However, I did like the story arc of the lonely girl finding an unexpected type of family, the steam-punk octopus grabbing children scenes were creepy, and the trained rats of Mama Rat were most excellent.
I also appreciated the way in which Sheba grows to realize that the other Peculiars are actual people too, with names, and histories, and possible futures, and that she herself had a mother who loved her. Though the story ends with the crew preparing to put on another show, I couldn't help but feel hopeful that life might have more in store for them.
Just as an aside--it's rather interesting to read a speculative fiction book in which the central child character is not actually the person who saves the day. Sheba, though appropriately plucky, actually does little that is useful--the adult Peculiars are the ones who come up with plans, take down bad guys, track people down, etc. This is another thing I appreciated!
But what will kids think? I really don't know. I have a vague sense that 19th-century is a hard sell to ten- and eleven-year olds, but the cool cover, promising action and adventure, and the appeal of the bizarre, might draw in kids both genders....and then, having met Sheba, they might well be happy to see how her adventures play out. The first chapter can be read at the author's website, if you want to try it out....
Final thought: I really could have done without Monkey Boy being so constantly gross.
Final-er thought: trying to label this, I can't decide on sci fi (the mechanical octopus and the reliance of the nefarious plot on Faraday's electrical fun) or fantasy (Sheba is a wolf girl in more than fur, and rats are preternaturally talented). So I will put both.
Freaks won The Times/Chicken House Publishing Children’s Fiction Competition 2010, and was published in the UK in 2011. Here's the UK cover, which, as Tanita points out in her discussion of this one at Finding Wonderland, is more than a bit misleading:
Disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher.