Generally, I’m skeptical of books written by teen authors. In my experience, they usually fall into one of three categories: A) extremely derivative; B) laughably wish-fulfilling; or C) all of the above. So I approached The Peculiar fully prepared to be disappointed. Delightfully, however, this book proves an exception to the pattern, and an impressively good one at that. Not only is it imaginative and unique, but apparently the only wish-fulfillment the 18-year-old author incorporates is that, as he says in the author bio, “I wanted to write something I would have loved to read as a kid.” Well, he’s created something that I loved to read as an adult, and I think other readers are likely to feel the same way.
As setting, Bachmann gives us a Victorian England where faery magic and fantastical mechanics exist uneasily side-by-side. Of course, steampunk settings are incredibly trendy right now, and like all trendy things, steampunk has been poorly done repeatedly over the past few years. However, Bachman’s steampunk setting is unique, interesting, and blessedly understated, conveying a captivating vision of a Victorian society where mechanical birds carry secret messages and changeling children grow up hiding in faery slums. All this in prose that is lucid, literate, and charming.
The characters, too, are delightful, and slightly Dickensian – the impoverished young Bartholomew Kettle, caught up by accident in a threatening magical scheme, and the comfortably wealthy Mr. Jelliby, whose desires for an uncomplicated and pleasant high-society life are compromised by his discovery of an ominous and clandestine plot at the highest levels of parliamentary government. Bachmann conveys these two characters through distinct third-person narrative voices – Bartholomew’s earnest and genuine, Mr. Jelliby’s humorous with a touch of the ironic. I was utterly charmed by both characters and the narrative voices that accompanied their portions of the action. Both of them grow over the course of the story, discovering inner courage and a willingness to face down danger and evil for the sake of what’s right and what’s important to them, and I enjoyed their journeys immensely.
The book isn’t perfect, of course; I found the narrative voice diminished in quality toward the end, when the two central characters are together and the author leapt back and forth between their perspectives too frequently. The final action scene was a little muddled. And, of course, some significant threads are left unresolved at the end, leaving room for a sequel – not that that’s a bad thing. But all in all, I really enjoyed this book, and I am extremely impressed at the talent of this youthful author. But you shouldn’t read this book because its author is a teenager. You should read it because it’s great!