Title: The Peculiars
Author: Maureen Doyle McQuerry
Published: 1 May 2012
Publisher: Amulet Books, an imprint of ABRAMS Books
Genre: YA, adventure, steampunk, science fantasy
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Since she was a child, Lena Mattacascar has been called Peculiar. She has unusually long hands and feet, and each of her fingers has an extra knuckle. “[S]igns of goblinism”, the doctor said, and her grandmother never hesitated to tell her what a no-good goblin criminal her father was (he left home when Lena was five). Lena tries to pass her strange appendages off as “birth defects” but she’s desperate to know the truth about her father and her own genetics.
On her 18th birthday, Lena’s mother gives her two gifts left by her father – a small inheritance, and a letter. Motivated by her father’s words to her, Lena decides to use the money to travel to Scree, the supposed land of the Peculiars. She takes a train to the town of Knob Knoster, on the border of Scree, where she will need to buy supplies and find someone to guide her through the wilderness. One man who could help her is Tobias Beasley, an inventor and historian.
However, Beasley is rumoured to be an eccentric who might be involved in strange dealings with Peculiars. A young but determined federal marshal named Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on him and report anything incriminating. Lena agrees, and gets a job in Beasley’s library, working alongside Jimson Quigley, a young man she met on the train. It’s a pleasant, fulfilling life, but Lena finds some suspicious things in Beasley’s home, leading her to make decisions that put the people she cares about in danger.
The Peculiars is a steampunk-ish coming-of-age novel about how difference breeds prejudice. The people who believe in Peculiars see them as sub-human, morally decrepit freaks. Scree has a dubious reputation as “the place where they send criminals. They say the forests are filled with hideous things”. “No one’s there but misfits, political enemies, and aliens”, Lena is told. It’s no surprise then, that all Peculiars are lumped together with thieves, murderers and anyone considered socially undesirable. The government uses this for political gain. Scree is rich in mineral resources, and by stating that Peculiars are non-human and playing into people’s fears and about them, the government is then able to declare Scree terra nullius – “a ‘land belonging to no one’”. It makes it easy for them to justify their actions there – stealing the land from the indigenous people and exploiting them as slave labour. It’s essentially the story of European colonialism. Scree is a metaphor for Africa or Australia, and the Peculiars represent the indigenous people of those lands.
It’s quite a while before you really see any of this in action though. The majority of the novel is set in Knob Knoster where Lena is trying to prepare for her Scree journey. As a result many reviewers have complained about the slow pace of this book. The blurb gives the impression that this is an action-adventure novel set in Scree, but in fact Lena doesn’t even get there until the last quarter of the novel. You also don’t get to see nearly as many Peculiars as you would expect – their very existence is portrayed as something of a myth for a while, although it’s obvious to the reader that they’re real.
Luckily, this didn’t bother me. I don’t trust blurbs, and in general I’m fine with slow-moving plots. I would have liked the Peculiars to play a larger part, but at least they’re intertwined with the politics and social views of the time. What really, really bothered me though, was Lena. She’s such a weak, thoughtless girl that she essentially spoiled the novel for me.
Thomas Saltre asks Lena to spy on Mr Beasley for him. In exchange he promises to provide her with a guide to Scree and since he’ll be focusing on Beasley, he’ll take his attention off Lena’s father, Saltre’s other most wanted criminal. Plus, Lena will be helping her country. Lena agrees, although there’s absolutely no good reason for her to do so at this point. She doesn’t need Saltre’s guide if Beasley will help her (which he immediately agrees to do). Saltre didn’t promise to leave her father alone, just that he would ignore him for a bit. It doesn’t even occur to Lena that Saltre could later use her to lead him straight to her father. And since when does Lena care about her country? The government is opposed to Peculiars, and she’s clearly a Peculiar.
It gets worse once she meets Beasley. She’s welcomed into his home, given a tour of his magnificent library, and invited to lunch. Beasley instantly agrees to be her Scree guide, and to help her pay for the expedition he offers her a job in his library and a place to stay in his lovely home. She accepts, and basically begins an ideal life for a young woman in her society. She has a respectable job doing fulfilling work, she has the independence that comes with making your own money, she lives in a beautiful, stately home, all meals are cooked by the housekeeper, and there’s the potential for a bit of romance with her colleague Jimson. On top of that, Beasley has offered to help her achieve her goal of travelling into Scree and finding her father. Beasley has basically given Lena everything she could want at this point. And still the stupid bitch goes running to Saltre with any information she can find to betray Beasley.
Lena actually carries around a notebook and pen just in case she learns something incriminating, and at one point she endures physical pain and great anxiety to go creeping around Beasley’s house in the middle of the night and steal one of his books. Why? Partly because she has a crush on the handsome Saltre, and partly because Lena is easily duped by authority. Saltre is a marshal, and she believes everything he says. The government says Peculiars are bad, therefore they must be bad (even though that implies that Lena is bad too, since she’s obviously Peculiar). If Beasley is breaking the law he must be stopped, even if he is good and the law is designed to exploit people. Lena is such a twit; it takes quite a while for her to think outside the lines.
It wouldn’t have been so bad if the reader had more of a chance to empathise with her, if we could see things the way she seems to see them. For example, if it looked like Saltre might actually have feelings for her, or if there was something potentially sinister about Mr Beasley. But no – while she’s blindly making the wrong decisions, it’s crystal clear to the reader what’s really going on. It’s so obvious that Saltre is a villainous government agent manipulating a vulnerable young woman to get what he wants. He’s going to turn on her the moment she ceases to be useful. It’s so obvious that Mr Beasley, on the other hand, is a good, kind man, and Lena is making a colossal mistake by betraying him. I know Lena is naive, but I just couldn’t take her side when people like Jimson and Beasley are so much more likeable.
Jimson is the one who tells Lena that the government is using the Peculiars for political gain. Although he refuses to believe Peculiars exist, you know he’s right about the government. Lena is critical of Jimson for being too rational and scientific, but he usually comes off as a much smarter person in contrast to Lena’s tendency to dismiss evidence in favour of rumour, assumption, and arguments from authority. Jimson and Lena find things that cause them to be suspicious of Beasley, but Jimson takes into account the fact they’ve only ever seen Beasley act with kindness, so he suspends his judgement until they have the whole story and is careful not to do anything rash. Lena on the other hand, runs headlong into doing something rash. This puts everyone in danger, but she has the audacity to criticise Jimson for doing nothing while she took action!
The crap thing is that if it weren’t for Lena being so damn stupid and ungrateful, the story would stand still. It’s her weakness and poor decisions that jumpstart the plot and finally move it out of Knob Knoster and into Scree. It’s a much better book from that point on, but it’s only the last quarter or so. Lena still does some moronic things, but she at least seems to have learned a little from her mistakes and is able to stand up for herself. There’s more danger and adventure in Scree, and of course we learn more about the Peculiars and the government’s operations. Sadly, it’s a case of too little too late. There’s potential for a decent sequel, but The Peculiars is average at best.