Jun 5, 2014
BOOK Review: Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Spoiler-Free)
With Tim Burton’s movie adaptation debuting today, it’s the perfect occasion to review the book Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
It’s easy to see how a coming-of-age horror/adventure story about eternal teenagers who can spit bees and animate the dead appealed to Tim Burton. With such a perfect marriage of artist and subject, rest assured that early reviews say the movie is Burton’s best in years. Okay, that’s a low bar, to be sure, but encouraging nonetheless.
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The book by Ransom Riggs was inspired by the author’s collection of old-timey photos of optical illusions. Back before sepia was pretentious or intentional, clever photographers would amuse their friends with elaborate trick shots to give the impression that a young person was floating or invisible or whatnot. Since Photoshop was still 100 years away, these images would blow people’s minds like a zombie prostitute. Many of the photos are reproduced in the book, and they’re still pretty awesome today.
Our hero is 16-year-old Jacob Portman, who exhibits possibly the most amazing superpower in the book: being a sullen, cynical teenage character who’s not such a completely insufferable snot that you hope he’ll drown in rat urine while being eaten by a snake. Few authors can pull that off, so kudos to Ransom Riggs.
As a little boy, Jacob loved his grandfather’s fantastical tales of supernatural children being hidden away from an army of unstoppable monsters. As he gets older, he gradually realizes the stories are just metaphors for his grandfather’s experience as a Jewish teenager hiding from the Nazis.
Here’s where I, your humble reviewer, had an advantage that you, my beloved reader, do not. I was lucky enough to have no idea what kind of story I was reading. Would our hero discover his grandfather’s tales were real and go on a magical adventure of his own? Or was this a story grounded in the real world, with an angry teen learning to take strength from his grandfather’s tragic past as he finds his own path?
I’d love to preserve that state of ignorance for you, but the movie’s poster/ads/existence are a dead giveaway that some magical shit is going down. Big Fish, this ain’t. We’re deep in Alice in Wonderland territory.
That’s hardly a spoiler. Most people reading the book are going to know it’s modern fantasy and be waiting impatiently for all the time travel and superpowers to begin. Be warned: you’ll be waiting a while.
Although Jacob gets an early glimpse at one of the monsters from his grandfather’s stories, he spends a good number of chapters dealing with police and his psychiatrist rather than hunting for hidden children. That might have been frustrating to me as a reader if I had known for a fact that a psychiatrist wasn’t exactly what our hero needed. That red herring worked in my case, but I worry other readers might find this part of the book painfully drawn out.
But Jacob eventually does stumble onto some hidden children of various magical abilities. And since “peculiar” kids don’t age while they’re in their magical hiding place, these youngsters are the exact same ones Jacob’s grandfather was hiding out with pre-WW2.
It’s at this point that the book turns into a gothic X-Men reboot set in 1941. (I warned you there was time travel.) A handful of teenage mutants are being protected and tutored by a single adult, only it’s the shapeshifting Miss Peregrine instead of Professor X.
Just don’t expect any spandex or super-heroics. These kids never find much to do with their peculiar powers other than stave off boredom while stuck in their hiding place. Seriously, an internet connection would have trumped all their abilities put together.
But so what? There’s a lot of fun to be had learning about the hiding place itself, the history of the children who live there, and the origin of the unstoppable monsters. I won’t spoil any of that here, of course. I’ll only say that Jacob sticks around long enough to discover a few dark secrets and fall in love.
(By the way, if you think it’s weird that Edward is like 100 years older than Bella, this romance is kind of the same thing, except the genders are flipped and also Edward used to go steady with Bella’s grandmother back in the day. Creepy, yes. But it’s a creepy book, intentionally, so it works.)
Like too many fantasy, horror, and sci-fi books, there’s more fun to be had exploring the world than the plot. When the monsters inevitably show up in the end, you’ll realize that you’re not particularly invested in that long-neglected plotline and would rather Jacob keep getting into shenanigans with his new buddies than save the world.
Fortunately, it’s not a fatal error. In fact, I loved the book and highly recommend it.
One of the book’s best features is that there’s nothing heavy-handed, at least not painfully so, which is what ruins a lot of YA today. (Huh, I wonder if that’s why the hero can be a very sullen teen without making you hate him. Writers, take note!) There are a few twists, but the author lets them dawn on you gradually rather than trying to SHOCK you with bullshit. The air of horror is thick but not oppressive. All and all, an impressive first novel.
Which leads me to the one major, massive WARNING DANGER WILL ROBINSON. This book is the first in a series, and book two is insanely terrible. It sucks. I suspect he wrote it in an afternoon.
It’s sloppy. It’s repetitive. The characters are reduced to one over-the-top character trait each. Nine out of every ten plot developments is eye-rollingly stupid. And ten out of ten plot developments are pure filler until the final two or three chapters. Seriously, if you fall in love with the first book and feel you absolutely must know what happens in the second, just skip to the last 50 pages. You won’t have missed a thing.
…except a talking dog. A talking dog, for fuck’s sake. Not a peculiar child who can transform into a dog or telepathically speak through a dog. A dog that fucking talks.
…and what the fuck is up with the monsters controlling both the Nazis and the Allies in World War II? How could the first book ever have happened if the monsters already controlled every government on Earth 70 fucking years ago?! Why don’t they rule every inch of the planet now?
…and did the author spend no time whatsoever trying to figure out the rules and consequences of time travel? Terminator Genisys was more coherent than this shit.
…and most of those photos aren’t peculiar or even interesting. What the hell, Ransom? You clearly went a million miles out of your way to contrive excuses to include photos that are as worthless as the chapters that accompany them.
Anyway, the third book is out now.
I haven’t read it. I’m still a little angry about book two.