Monday, June 2, 2014

Book Review: Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

First of all, this wins the award for most misleading cover ever. It suggests a light, steampunky, adventure sort of book; the color-scheme and overall goofiness of the metal bird says there might even be puns.

Peculiar is dark, dark, dark. When the back cover suggests that changelings (halfbreeds) should hide lest they get hanged? It means it. This is the sort of world where kids are hung, where a woman is possessed by a dark, nasty sort of fairy and made to kidnap children, and where the faeries have neither forgiven nor forgotten the not-so-long-ago war they fought with humans.

Bachman knows how to keep a reader's attention, and I'm not at all sorry I read Peculiar, but it isn't the book to listen to while falling asleep that I had expected.

Peculiar is the story of a young half-human, half-faerie boy who has been living in hiding all his life; changelings aka peculiars have very short lifespans if discovered by most full-blooded folk of either species. He's been taught that safety comes from not being noticed. Then his sister is kidnapped, and he sets out to hunt her. At the same time, Arthur Jelliby, a nice young man with lots of wealth, a beautiful wife, and a comfortable political position, finds himself overhearing secrets that make him very uncomfortable, being asked for help by beautiful women, and generally ending up acting like a hero. Both of them risk rather nasty deaths and face some thoroughly desperate, very determined opponents.

Bachman is good at world building, creating a land where faeries and humans live together in uneasy peace, where there are regular precautions against magic but where it creeps in at odd moments anyhow.

The prose is mostly good, and the majority of the descriptions are evocative. The Prologue is nicely chilling, with the Bath being destroyed in a night. "There were no flames. No screams. Everyone within five leagues disappeared" and the city is left a ruin, starting a war "called the Smiling War because it left so many skulls, white and grinning, in the fields."

There are, however, the occasional clunkers such as "the word fell like a furry ball to the floor" or "The word flittered up the staircase, through the silent passages..." which served to effectively yank me right out of the book and set me to wondering how words could be like balls of any sort and whether the words flew on bat or butterfly wings and which would be more efficient and other such imponderables.

There are also bits of the plot that made me as an adult ask questions but might not bother a middle-grade reader. My biggest question was: Why haven't these people cooked up some good birth control? Peculiar makes it clear that it's not a matter of whether a changeling child will die but when--one family has seven children; six are hanged, one is kidnapped. Both humans and faeries find the children revolting, so you'd think that either the faeries or the humans would have come up with a way not to have them.

And, yes, it bugged me that the half-fairy, half-human children were called changelings, though there is a sentence sort of hand waving this. On a more nitpicky level, it also bothered me that the protagonists bought and ate food (bad pies, at that!) at the Goblin Market without ill-effect and that, later, one of them drinks tea in a faerie's home, and one refuses, and it doesn't matter. Traditionally, eating and drinking fairy food is a Bad Idea, but it doesn't seem to be in Peculiar

On a larger level, though, Bachman is very, very good at atmosphere. His Faery-haunted world is pretty scary, and there are lots of nice touches, like the possessed woman's clothing slowly deteriorating as she isn't caring for it any more or the way church bells are now ringing every five minutes in an effort to keep fairy magic from working around the towns.

Also, the main villain's plot makes sense. He has a very good reason for his schemes and is being quite methodical about getting what he wants. He's not quite human sane, but he shouldn't be, so that's just as well.

Bachman follows two protagonists, altering between Bartholomew and Arthur Jelliby quite deftly. The two different points of view--adult (ish: Arthur has to do a lot of growing up here!) and child make for a good pairing, and the chapter breaks and shifts in view keep suspense going quite nicely. Also, like the villain, the heroes have good, solid motivation and both grow into the role of hero quite satisfactorily.

Peculiar isn't a perfect book, but it's a book I quite enjoyed reading--or rather, listening to. I'm not sure about the audience: Some middle-graders would enjoy it, some might find it far too dark. I suppose it's a matter of "read the prologue and decide from there." As for adults, some may be able to forgive flittering words for the sake of smoky cities and creepy, plotting faery people, some might not.

I'm sort of at the mid-point myself, but I do have The Whatnot, the book's sequel, on hold at the library.

Oh, and the audio version has some very good music to it, including a good, long stretch at the end by Bachmann himself.

Publication Details
Published September 18th 2012 by Greenwillow Books
ISBN: 0062227696 (ISBN13: 9780062227690)
series: The Peculiar #1

Additional Reviews and Pages
Stefan Bachmann's Page
Lots and lots of reviews found via Fyrefly's Book Blog's Search Engine.


  1. Ha! That IS a very misleading cover! I was just thinking, how nice, a delightful YA steampunk book from Greenwillow; and then I read more of your review and was shocked at how brutal it all sounds. In a fun way!

    1. I picked it in a hurry based mostly on the cover--a middle-grade, lightweight fantasy, perfect for bedtime listening.

      Um. No.

      On the whole, once one gets over the cover--which takes about two pages of the prologue--the good outweighs the bad, but it is, as you say, quite brutal at different points.