Book review: Stefan Bachmann’s “The Peculiar”

Stefan Bachmann is the latest addition to the crop of teen authors that have sprung up over the course of the last decade or so.

With his debut novel “The Peculiar” — which he began writing when he was 16 — the 19-year-old joins the ranks of Christopher Paolini, Flavia Bujor, and Ned Vizzini as authors who’ve debuted in the publishing scene even before they were in their twenties.

But while buzz always surrounds these adolescent authors, the longevity of their careers is less certain. While Bujor’s “The Prophecy of the Stones was an international hit translated into 30 languages, people mostly attribute its success to the fact that Bujor wrote it when she was 12. Paolini became a New York Times bestselling author at the age of 19, but the books that followed his debut novel “Eragon” have been consistently panned by critics.

Bachmann himself has been getting a lot of buzz. Popular news site The Huffington Post named him as one of its “18 Under 18” for 2012, while Publishers Weekly named him as one of the “Flying Starts” of 2012. But will “The Peculiar” prove itself worthy of the hype surrounding its teenage author? Or will he meet the same fate as Bujor and Paolini?

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“The Peculiar” takes place in a vastly different Victorian England where humans share a prickly coexistence with faery creatures from myth and legend. Many years ago, faeries found themselves in the mortal realm after a rift opened between the two worlds. After a long and bitter war, the magical creatures have been subjugated by the human’s weapons and technology.

While a fair amount of distrust exists between the two races, both look down upon Peculiars, half-human and half-faery children often considered to be bearers of bad luck. Bartholomew Kettle and his sister Hettie are two such beings, and they have spent most of their young lives in hiding so as to avoid being the target of hate from either group.

However, things change when the outside world intrudes into their lives. When a sinister creature whisks Hettie away, Bartholomew finds himself thrust out of the shadows and into the outside world. But in an unfamiliar world filled with treachery, deceit, and powerful magic, will Bartholomew find the strength to bring his sister back home?

It’s immediately clear from the book’s prologue that the buzz around Bachmann doesn’t stem from his age alone. Three pages into the book and it’s obvious that he wields his words well; his description of the grisly end met by scientists sent to investigate the faery invasion in the city of Bath is effective in its sparseness.

This efficiency is present throughout the book. Bachmann expertly builds a world that readers will find easy to get lost in. In “The Peculiar”, England is an immersive steampunk world populated by clockwork animals and faery creatures, with foreboding buildings that spew ash and smoke into the air. It’s world-building that some authors older than he is still find themselves failing at.

Atmosphere is also something that Bachmann excels at. There are several scenes that are sure to chill one’s spine, such as one involving a faery mother living next door to Barthlomew, and one can’t help but be amazed at the skill that Bachmann displays. He also has great comic timing, breaking moments of tension with clever wordplay that one doesn’t usually expect from a 16-year-old.

Bachmann’s wonderful world-building is complemented by his skillful handling of the plot, which moves along at a swift and breakneck pace. Revelations and machinations pile up one after the other as readers move through the chapters, and while the central mystery isn’t as intricate as one would like, it does not distract at all from one’s enjoyment of “The Peculiar”.

If “The Peculiar” has a weakness, it’s the fact that its two main characters — Bartholomew Kettle and Arthur Jelliby — aren’t as fully drawn as the world that they inhabit. Both protagonists are one note throughout most of the novel, and the growth that they do experience isn’t as skillfully explored as the rest of Bachmann’s world.

Among the many characters that readers will encounter in “The Peculiar”, it is the villainous Jack Box that will probably be the most interesting. A frightening creature that hounds Bartholomew and Arthur throughout most of the book, his revelations and actions at a climactic point in the story are sure to shock young and old alike.

It’s this ability to entertain and shock across any age that is perhaps the best attribute of “The Peculiar”. It’s just as easy to imagine a twentysomething enjoying this book as much as a young adult reader would. No one is going to be left unimpressed.

“The Peculiar” ends with a cliffhanger, and it’s sequel, “The Whatnot”, is set to be released this year. If “The Whatnot” is as skillfully constructed as “The Peculiar”, then Bachmann is definitely an author whose future works readers should probably look out for.

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