Backlist Review: The Peculiars by Maureen Doyle McQuerry

Wednesday, February 25, 2015
Genre: young-adult, steampunk, fantasy/science fiction
Series: N/A as of now
Pages: 368 (Nook ARC edition)
Published: expected May 2012
Source: publishers via NetGalley
Rating: 4/5

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.

The Peculiars is, best and most simply said, a peculiarly delightful novel.  With a humanly flawed and real character in protagonist Lena Mattacascar,  a fun cast of intriguing background characters and a familiar-yet-alien enveloping atmosphere, this is one of the first novels I've read this year to so thoroughly and quickly grab my attention. This is advertised as a 'steampunk adventure' and admittedly that was half of what drew me to this particular novel, but this is really more proto or early-ear steampunk than a full-fledged addition to the genre. It's more of a window dressing than the main house if you follow me, though that's not the novel's overall detriment. What Peculiars has in plenty is charm, dimensional and likeable characters and its aforementioned alluring alternate universe.

Lena lives in an 'alternate universe of the 1880s", a world that persecutes and hates 'Peculiars'. Though there's no real basis for the hate (other than the oh-so familiar "they're different from us"), and though no studies have ever reported from studying them, they are labelled as "soulless", prone to violence, hateful and full of selfishness. While it's easy to see parallels between the treatment of Peculiars in Lena's world and the treatment of minorities in America's not-so-distant past, McQuerry doesn't beat the reader over the head with it. Her message(s) throughout The Peculiars are simple but direct. The Peculiars themselves are largely unseen for most of the fantasy novel, giving them an added air of mystery to their already largely mysterious demeanor - do they even exist? what actually defines a Peculiar? Lena herself grapples with the possibility certainty that she is a Peculiar often and genuinely. It is so easy to understand and sympathize with her plight and her subsequent questions and actions. Fearing her half-Peculiar nature, Lena shuns part of her heritage and hates that non-conformist part of herself - something most people, willing to admit it or not, can easily commiserate with and remember from their own pasts. 

I loved Lena. I didn't love her initially, as she seemed a bit judgmental and quick on the draw for it (see: Jimson in the train) but Lena is a wonderful character, one that grows and learns throughout the course of her journey. As the pages go on and Lena makes mistakes, learns, I became quite fond of the snarky but smart girl. She is flawed both personality-wise and appearance-wise but her character is rounded out with intelligence, courage, and other attributes. Her search for her father is clearly about much more than finding answers about a long-ago crime; it's about Lena finally accepting who and what she is, unconditionally.  I do wish this had been in first person perspective as it was focused so closely on Lena, her thoughts, struggles, and experiences and it's always weird, for me as a reader, to read that type of narrative from a secondhand perspective. <SPOILER WARNING>I would've been very disappointed if Lena's long-routed trek to Scree had resulted in a father-daughter reunion. Who Lena is shouldn't be defined by anyone else, nor her acceptance of what she is. Hats off again to Ms. McQuerry for avoiding the obvious and easy out. </END SPOILER>

While the hatred/segregation directed towards the Peculiars as a race/species brings back uncomfortable memories, the slight paranoia, fear and overall watchfulness of the world will do the same. This time, the mood set forth is more dystopic, akin to Nazi Germany with the normal, non-Peculiar citizens encouraged in an anonymous report-your-neighbor spy system. While the worldbuilding isn't the most solid I've come across, the tidbits that eke out over the course of a read do much to fill in the early blanks. While I didn't get a final answer until the author's afterword, certain phrases/words/names were dropped or alluded to throughout The Peculiars - further reinforcing both the similarities and disparities between Lena's world and ours. The clues appear at random and it can be kind of fun matching the cognates between alternate worlds: Karl Marx, Meriwether Lewis, Napoleon, Mendel all warrant specific mention, if in different capacities than actual history takes. London, Holland, Sweden, India - all are referenced as countries still existing. The only frustrating part about those tantalizing hints is that no real place is confirmed as the location. Scree/Knob Knouster is the scene for most of the events, but no country, fictional or fact, is mentioned as a home country. 

I did find the 'villain' of the novel to be a bit lacking. He didn't really add a lot of suspense or tension until too far for my personal tastes, so I felt that certain sections...dwaddled a tad. I liked the pull Lena felt between the two possible romantic interests she had in this novel: this love-triangle, as slight and proper as it was, actually felt like more than a plot device to further drama. While I can't say I am a fan of it here, even, I will willingly and readily admit that this is one of the few authors that actually can present a believable mess of emotions like Lena. The marshal appeals to her 'human side': win his affection and it's like proof she's all human. Jimson on the other hand, represents a wilder, unknown attraction and Lena's indecision rings true. It's not drawn out overlong, either, when Lena's mind is made up. Likewise my disappointment with the villain's lacking presence, so too the the absence of more than just a few Peculiars. So much was made about them that I was genuinely curious to find out the same answers as Lena - do they have souls? How many kinds are there? What happened to make the Peculiars? Unfortunately for my impatient soul, The Peculiars doesn't dole out the easy answers for all the questions Lena and I have. The only way I won't be majorly disappointed in the execution of such an inventive idea is if Maureen McQuerry pens a sequel with those revelations inside. 

This is a book I would actually love to see in a series. (Make it happen, world!) Though I can't help but commend McQuerry for neatly wrapping up the ties of loose plot floating around the end of her novel, I just want more. More of this steam-powered world of goblins and winged people, more of Lena and Jimson. More of Mrs. Mumbles, a Scree-cat that joins fellow famous felines like Harry Potter's Crookshanks, Grimalkin from the Iron Fey, and Mogget/Yrael of Lirael/Sabriel fame as my favorite literary cats.  The Peculiars is quirky and odd but filled to the brim with great, living characters - this was a read I didn't want to finish and a world I didn't want to leave. 

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