Book publicists and lazy reviewers often try to get away with describing a book as “like x but…”. I try not to do that, but sometimes that sort of thing can make an interesting starting point for a review. So I’ll kick off here by saying that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, by Ransom Riggs, is a bit like the X-Men would be if they were written by Tim Powers.
What do I mean by that? Well Miss Peregrine runs a home for some very peculiar children. All of them have super powers of some sort. There’s the girl who can make fire with her hands, the boy whose body is full of bees, the girl who can levitate (shown on the cover), the boy who can animate dolls. These kids, however, are not superheroes, and indeed they are a bit younger than we normally see the X-Men. Miss Peregrine’s is a school for children, not a college for teens. No one fights crime, but they do fight Nazis, and evil mutants, when they have to.
I’ll leave the Nazis mainly for you to discover yourselves, because the book doesn’t start in WWII. It starts in present day Florida where our hero, Jacob, is trying to get fired from an awful job stacking shelves in a branch of the chain of drug stores owned by his uncles. Naturally the store manager is afraid to do anything, no matter how badly he behaves, but the one relief he has is a family duty to look after his aged Polish grandfather whenever he is called to do so. The phone rings.
Grandpa is a bit crazy. That’s kind of understandable. His family shipped him out of Poland alone just in time to avoid the round-up of Jews. He spent some time in an orphanage in Wales, and signed up to fight Hitler as soon as he could. He has a large collection of guns, just in case the monsters come looking for him. Jacob’s father has locked the guns in a cupboard and hidden the key, in case Grandpa does himself a mischief. But this is something like a Tim Powers novel, so we know that the monsters are real, and they are actual monsters. Without his guns, Grandpa has nothing with which to protect himself.
So Jacob ends up knowing that something terrible happened to Grandpa, but no one will believe him. His only hope is to decipher the clues he has been given. That leads him to a remote island off the coast of Wales, where no one has any knowledge of the mysterious orphanage. Jacob, inevitably, learns the truth, which is far more strange and dangerous than he could have imagined.
There are a lot of good things about this book. It is creepy and mysterious, and it is illustrated with a large number of very strange period photographs that show the children demonstrating their powers. Try to get this as paper if possible, the Kindle doesn’t do justice to the pictures (though Riggs does provide links to online sources in an appendix — yes, the photos are all real). The relationship between Jacob and his dysfunctional family is well handled, and the school kids are all interesting characters. In many ways I’m pleased that it appears there will be a sequel so that we can learn more about them, and the secret underground world of “Peculiars” to which they belong. I also have a fondness for any book in which some of the characters are found to be watching Father Ted.
There are, however, a few problems with the book that are probably more obvious to a British reader than an American. To start with there’s the geography. The school is in Wales, on a place called Cairnholm Island, which is surrounded by shipwrecks. The book notes: “‘Twixt Hartland Point and Cairnholm Bay is a sailor’s grave by night or day!”
Well Hartland Point is a very dangerous piece of coast. It rates a lighthouse. But it is in North Devon, just along from Appledore, where some of my family have lived for centuries. That puts it on the south side of the Bristol Channel, but the channel isn’t so dangerous that far out, it is the coast that is the problem. Wales is about 40 miles away on the other side of the Channel. It is much more likely that the island is further along the English coast. Indeed, there’s an island called Steepholm not far away off the coast of Somerset, though it is too small to be the place featured in the book. The word Cairn is Scottish, of course. And the book says that the island is in the Irish sea.
The original folk rhyme, by the way, is “From Pentire Point to Hartland Light a watery grave by day or night.” Pentire Point is near Padstow in North Cornwall. That whole north coast of South West England is pretty dangerous.
Furthermore, almost none of the islanders sound in the slightest bit Welsh. Martin, the museum owner, might well be a Welshman. The rest of them are what we Brits call “Mummerset”, though strictly that’s a mish-mash of English country cultures, and Riggs manages to pour Welsh, Irish and Scottish into the mix as well.
US readers, imagine you read a book that claimed to be set on an island off the coast of Maine, somewhere near Chesapeake Bay, and the characters’ speech patterns included bits of New York, Southern drawl and Valley Girl.
There are historical issues with the story too, but that’s getting to a level of nit-pickery that most readers would not stoop to so I shall spare you the details of U-Boat activity in British waters during 1940.
All this is a bit of a shame. This is an original and entertaining debut novel that I’d happily recommend to readers who don’t know enough, or don’t care much, about the authenticity of the setting. Unfortunately UK readers, and well-informed foreigners, are liable to find the book unconvincing because of the slapdash way in which Riggs has put together the background. Try imagining that it is set in another world, or something, because it is a fun book to read if you can get past the inconsistencies.