Book Review: The Peculiar by Stefan Bachmann

Book Review by Sarah L. Mason

384 pages
Greenwillow Books

Stefan Bachmann’s steampunk murder mystery, The Peculiar, is an inventive story about a young outcast’s role in a sinister event that literally changes the world. Bartholomew Kettle, the “changeling” half-blood protagonist who lives in the faery slums on Old Crow Alley in Bath, has been given a crappy lot in life. He is half-faery/half-human, and his mulatto breeding makes him and others like him essentially worthless in the eyes of the rest of the population. “Don’t get yourself noticed, and you won’t get yourself hanged” is a motto by which the changelings must live, and when a string of murders of child changelings is discovered, not many people—neither humans nor faeries—care.

The murders hit close to home for Bartholomew, though, and he knows he has to do something, so he defies his mother’s wishes and enters into the dangerous world unprotected. Early on in the story, this mystery of the changeling murders is solved for the readers, changing the murder mystery plot from a whodunit to a whydunit through the eyes of someone on the other side of the fence. Arthur Jelliby, a well-to-do human politician, finds out about the injustices and is drawn in to the scandal. The book follows Mr. Jelliby and Bartholomew’s twisted and twisty searches for the truth.

These complications could make for a confusing read, but Bachmann politely reminds his readers of the relevant details from chapters past in order to guide his reader’s mind in the right direction. Bachmann’s tale maintains a fast pace and is presented by a sensitive narrator with a penchant for relaying emotions, actions, and perceptions with a voice as wise as time.

The Peculiar deals with dark subject matter in an even darker setting. The gritty landscape is downright scary at times, and the central problems of the story stem from overt and ruthless racism.

“The faery slums of Bath were not kind to strangers.  One moment you could be on a bustling thoroughfare, dodging tram wheels and dung piles, and trying not to be devoured by the wolves that pulled the carriages, and the next you could be hopelessly lost in a maze of narrow streets with nothing but gaunt old houses stopping overhead, blocking out the sky. If you had the ill luck to meet anyone, chances were it would be a thief. And not the dainty sort, like the thin-fingered chimney sprytes of London. Rather the sort with dirt under his nails and leaves in his hair, who, if he thought it worthwhile, would not hesitate to slit your throat.”

Which is why it is so peculiar that The Peculiar is sold in the children’s section. It takes an imagination to read it and like it, but not a child’s imagination. The humor occasionally takes a childish turn, particularly the jokes revolving around goofy Arthur Jelliby, but the narrative quickly redeems itself and never loses the reader. Glittering moments of adult truth are actually breath-taking and worth reading a third and fourth time. The most staggering truth, though, is that Bachmann was only 16 when he started the novel, and 19 when it was published. With precision, he defied his youth and created a world and a story deep enough for adults but fun enough for children.

Both Bartholomew and Mr. Jelliby are relatable characters, assigned troubles, quirks, and questions that perplex and color every reader’s life. The authoritative narration speaks truths in ways that can make the reader think they have heard it before, but wraps it up in such remarkably rich language that it is obviously anything but unoriginal:

“It was not like any voice he had ever heard before. It was hollow and earthy, and it sang in a thin, pointy language that for some reason made Bartholomew feel wicked for listening to it, as if it was not meant for him to hear, as if he were eavesdropping. But the melody was paralyzing. It went up, then fell, now tempting, now wild, snaking out of the cupboard and filling the whole flat. He was surrounded by it, swimming up through swirling black ribbons of sound. It filled his head, becoming louder and faster until it was all there was, all he heard, all he knew.”

The gloomy content of the novel is packaged neatly within its beautiful mode of being told and relieved by moments of fun (if childish) humor. Imagination flourishes on the pages of this book. Reading The Peculiar is rewarding, and Bachmann’s exciting new voice is a welcome breeze.

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