Review: The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

The Peculiars
Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Amulet Books (2012)
354 pages
YA / Fantasy / Adventure

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This dark and thrilling adventure, with an unforgettable heroine, will captivate fans of steampunk, fantasy, and romance. On her 18th birthday, Lena Mattacascar decides to search for her father, who disappeared into the northern wilderness of Scree when Lena was young. Scree is inhabited by Peculiars, people whose unusual characteristics make them unacceptable to modern society. Lena wonders if her father is the source of her own extraordinary characteristics and if she, too, is Peculiar. On the train she meets a young librarian, Jimson Quiggley, who is traveling to a town on the edge of Scree to work in the home and library of the inventor Mr. Beasley. The train is stopped by men being chased by the handsome young marshal Thomas Saltre. When Saltre learns who Lena’s father is, he convinces her to spy on Mr. Beasley and the strange folk who disappear into his home, Zephyr House. A daring escape in an aerocopter leads Lena into the wilds of Scree to confront her deepest fears.

Maureen Doyle McQuerry’s The Peculiars starts out very slowly, but then again, most books that start with long train rides often are, even ones that involve a short scene of burglary. It’s not until lead character Lena makes it to the home of the mysterious Mr. Beasley before anything really starts to happen. There just seems to be so much more happening just off the screen until the last third of the book, when it becomes more of an adventure story with numerous chase scenes and suspicious bad guys falling out of the woodworks.

This is a story heavily steeped in fantasy with only a few occasional side notes entering the steampunk realm. Yes, there’s travel via airship and the occasional gadget, but mostly this is a story about the Peculiars - humans with odd physical deformities - seeking safe haven while the authorities try to wipe them out. McQuerry’s world building leaned heavily on fantasy tropes, and I really wish there had been more description of what really went on in Zephyr House. A few of Mr. Beasley’s gadgets and experiments are referred to, but it felt like moments to really add in the steampunk elements were overlooked in the first half of the book. Perhaps my disappointment came more in it being categorized as steampunk and having a very gear-oriented cover, leaving me with higher expectations of the science fiction pieces.

Like most books told in the first person, I preferred the side characters much more than the lead. Lena’s most interesting characteristic are her hands and feet, which are deformed with extra joints and incredibly long. She is self-conscious and self-defeating, actively working against her best interests while constantly obsessing over her physical flaws. Because this book is told in the first person, this constant focus on her imperfections prevents her from becoming more than your standard YA heroine who hates herself and doesn’t recognize the good in her life until it’s about to be taken away. She regularly makes bad decisions despite all signs pointing to their potentially fatal consequences. Fortunately the other characters, including the unassuming Jimson, are far more interesting.

Jimson is an unusual character because nothing seems to faze him and he finds excitement and wonder in everything he comes across. Yet at the same time he doesn’t come across as flighty or naïve. His sense of adventure gives perspective to the events in the book and his relationship with his long-distance fiancée provides moments of more grounded emotions, where everything isn’t all sparkles and promises. Mr. Beasley, while putting on the airs of an eccentric, is the most fascinating of the characters because there are so many mysteries surrounding him and his strange home. How Lena could see this man, who clearly cared about her well-being despite her “goblin-ness”, still bothers me. I suppose naiveté can be blamed for many things though. Anyway every time I thought I’d pegged who Beasley was, he’d suddenly bust out a new skill that altered my opinion of him. He’s incredibly resourceful and I’d love to hear more about his background.

I was very pleased that the objective stated in the book’s description – Lena attempting to find her father – was clearly solved and the story wrapped up. A few windows are left open for the inevitable sequels, but in itself The Peculiars is a complete story that stands on its own. I would categorize it more as fantasy adventure that happens to include an airship and air guns. The parts that felt more like an adventure tale, including the last 50 pages or so, made the book for me. Otherwise it was mostly a story I feel I’ve read maybe a few times too many.

I really should stop going into these YA “steampunk” books expecting the level of world building and involvement seen in some of the titles I’ve loved in the past. Had I not expected more science fiction, I probably could have enjoyed The Peculiars more for what it was – a fantasy quest tale with a fair amount of adventure. Instead I kept reading, wanting more of what wasn’t really there.

 

I received a free e-copy of this book from the publisher via Netgalley in return for an honest review.