Maureen Doyle McQueery
Lena Mattacascar was born with elongated feet and hands, which were probably inherited from her mysterious father. A doctor told her she has “goblin phalanges.” Lena’s father abandoned his family when Lena was five years old, and she has always fretted over whether he is a goblin. Goblins are just one of the species labeled as Peculiars, creatures with various genetic abnormalities that are said to have no soul and pose a danger to humans. Few Peculiars exist any longer and those that do have been forced over the northern boarder into the lawless land of Scree, where they are forced to work in the mines. Lena’s father did not possess the physical characteristics of a goblin, but his charm, selfishness, and violent anger all point to him being a Peculiar. Lena worries that she may develop these personality traits over time and needs to know the truth about her father.
When she turns 18, Lena uses her limited funds to embark on a journey to Scree. Her purse is stolen on the train and Lena is forced to stay in Knob Knoster, a town just south of the Scree border, until she can raise enough funds to pay for a guide and continue her trip. She encounters a handsome federal marshal, Thomas Saltre, who convinces her to help him investigate an evil doctor performing experiments on Peculiars in Knob Knoster. Thomas sends Lena to home of Tobias Beasley to look for work and secretly document the happenings in his estate, called Zephyr House. Mr. Beasley is happy to hire Lena as a library assistant, working alongside his newly hired librarian, Jimson Quiggley. Lena moves into Zephyr House and immediately notices strange visitors and Mr. Beasley’s wild inventions. While it is difficult for her to imagine the kind Mr. Beasley doing anything wrong, she feels it is her duty to report everything she sees back to the marshal. She hopes that he will escort her into Scree in return. She does eventually make it to Scree but not in the way she imagined, and what she finds there shocks Lena deeply.
This Gothic steampunk adventure is a fantastic read. The characters are complex and interesting. Lena’s flaws drove me crazy at times, but I found her believable. Jimson’s enthusiasm and kindness make him the star of the novel; he is the perfect foil to Lena’s pessimism. I wanted to learn more about Mr. Beasley, but I feel McQueery is saving him for a sequel. Other minor characters are equally well developed and add to the story. Some people have criticized McQueery’s pacing in the novel. I did not see this problem. The action and mystery are sustained throughout the story. The short chapters keep the reader interested through the more descriptive sections of the book. My only complaint would be unnecessary chapter names, which give away too much of the story.
I particularly enjoyed The Peculiars‘ themes of acceptance and human rights. McQueery carefully shows the dangers of governments vilifying minorities and exploiting their denigrated status. There is a lot to discuss in this novel, making it a perfect fantasy selection for a middle school bookclub.
4.5 out of 5 stars
Recommended for grades 5-8