Then a great many things happened at once. Bartholomew, staring so intently, nodded forward a bit so that the tip of his nose brushed against the windowpane. And the moment it did, there was a quick, sharp movement in the yard below, and the lady reached behind her and jerked apart the coils of hair at the back of her head. Bartholomew’s blood turned to smoke in his veins. There, staring directly up at him, was another face, a tiny, brown, ugly face like a twisted root, all wrinkles and sharp teeth.
With a muffled yelp, he scrabbled away from the window, splinters driving into his palms. It didn’t see me, it didn’t see me. It couldn’t ever have known I was here.
But it had. Those wet black eyes had looked into his. For an instant they had been filled with a terrible anger. And then the creature’s lips had curled back and it had smiled. (23-24)
Bartholomew had been told by his mother time and again to not draw attention to himself. He and his sister are Peculiars, half faery and half human, feared and distrusted and occasionally loathed by both races as oddities. So when he gets spotted while observing a beautiful lady, a lady who whisks away a neighboring Peculiar into a whirlwind of black feathers, Bartholomew is understandably concerned. Peculiars seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate, and the skins of their bodies are being found in the river. His concern for his friend turns to fear for his own family as he and his sister might be marked as the next to be taken.
While this book was billed as “part murder mystery, part gothic fantasy, part steampunk adventure”, I really didn’t get a steampunk feel from it. Certainly not in the way the Sherlock Holmes movies or Westerfeld’s Leviathan series is steampunk. Just because there is a clockwork bird and an automaton doesn’t make it steampunk. I’ll agree however about the murder mystery and gothic fantasy. Bachmann knows how to set the scene for the action that follows:
Fog slunk among the headstones of St. Mary, Queen of Martyrs, that night. It smelled of charcoal and rot, and spread in slow shapes down the sloping graveyard. Above, clouds drifted, snuffing out the moon. Somewhere in the maze of streets beyond the wall a dog barked. (205)
Readers might get a little lost in the culture and interactions of faeries and humans, as Bachmann thrusts you into the world from the beginning and worries about explaining things later. While it makes the story flow more naturally, assuming the reader know what they need to know, it helps that Bartholomew and the other main character we see things through, Arthur Jelliby, are somewhat clueless and trying to figure things out as well. Arthur Jelliby is someone who would rather not be investigating the disappearance of Peculiars, as that isn’t really his job, but finds himself being drawn in by coincidences, natural curiosity, and dare I say a sense of duty. I found myself being very sympathetic to both his and Bartholomew’s plight, as the stories intertwine and they are both just trying to get back to normal lives after they unwillingly became involved in this predicament.
I was not informed that this debut book (which it says in the back jacket Bachmann wrote when he was sixteen) is the first in a series, which proved very frustrating to me. Bachmann has nailed building tension by shifting viewpoints after a suspenseful turn of events or a Hannibal Lecter-esque piece of dialogue, where you know something bad is right around the corner. And that, unfortunately, was how the book ended. I definitely foresee a change of setting for book two as the reason for Bartholomew getting involved as yet to be resolved. (That’s really all I can say without spoiling plot points). The good news is that it appears Arthur Jelliby will be along for the ride as well, and we can only hope that Bartholomew and Jelliby interact a little more in book two.