I rarely seek out historical fantasy because I like my books to be far removed from the world I know. However, there is one thing that will get me every time: stories set in London. So here I go, off into the strange London depicted in The Peculiarities by David Liss.
Thomas Thresher is the shunned youngest son of a successful banking family. Left to his own devices, Thomas indulged in a 19th-century, party boy lifestyle in London which made debauchery look downright proper with men gallivanting around in their fancy hats and suits. Thomas had a fun run. That is until his father died. The will demands that Thomas must begin working at the bank as a junior clerk and learn the ways of the family business. He is then placed under the watchful eye of his sour older brother, Walter, who is intent on making Thomas’ life miserable. You see, Walter has insisted that Thomas marry Miss Esther Feldstein, and that simply can’t happen because, well, he doesn’t want to, and secondly, leaves are growing out of his skin. As strange occurrences appropriately named the Peculiarities sweep through the city, Thomas learns that his brother’s seemingly petty actions are for a larger, mysterious goal.
I would not have enjoyed this story half as much if it weren’t for Thomas. He is endearingly proper and hopeless in both normal and magical situations. Thomas is intelligent but often blunders his way through the story’s events – with a lot of decorum, I may add. His life is incredibly dull and meaningless when we meet him, which accounts for some great deadpan musings. But as the story progresses, a more sincere and thoughtful side of him develops. My anxiety ramped up as the cards stacked up against Thomas, but he never wallowed in it. Thomas simply picked the leaves off his skin and set about his next task as if the world wasn’t coming to an end. He absolutely had moments of doubt and fear, but it was such a fleeting thing. I don’t know what hard stuff Thomas is made of but apparently, it is tree bark.
There are a lot of peculiar things happening in this book. Magical ailments are afflicting the city and causing all sorts of chaos. Thomas is sprouting leaves of course, but others have lost facial features, developed wings and, uh, tentacles, while some turn into proper werewolves. As in, they still possess all the charm of a Londoner just with fur, wolfish features, and no bloodlust. There’s also the small fact that women are giving birth to rabbits. And there are creatures called The Elegants who are murdering people in the streets a la Jack the Ripper. The oddest thing in this story is not the Peculiarities themselves, but the fact that there’s not a whole lot of explanation surrounding their existence or why they occur. Upon finishing the book I’m not entirely sure I know what any of it means, and I’m not certain I’m supposed to know.
The Peculiarities is told in a series of vignettes, so we’re constantly jumping from scene to scene. Thomas will interact with key characters, collect a bread crumb of information for the mystery, and dip out. Rinse and repeat. Because of this, there isn’t an established sense of time which is disorienting especially when Thomas wants us to feel like he’s racing against the clock. This type of storytelling means we never explore the story or characters in a meaningful way. It is also why I can’t describe the whole peculiarities business.
This book will satisfy anyone looking for a fast plot and unique world, but I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by not getting a full scope of the story. The ending especially felt unfinished to me, but it does stay true to the book’s writing style. Explanations are not guaranteed or explored in-depth, so we are left to wonder on our own as to what it all means. Will you enjoy this book? I think so. Thomas is too precious not to root for, and if you look past the story gaps you can enjoy the heroism of a clueless man trying to set the world right.
Rating: The Peculiarities – 6.5/10
An ARC of this book was provided to us in exchange for an unbiased review. The thoughts on this story are my own.