Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Thrills and Chills, Steampunk Version

The Hunchback Assignments by Arthur Slade
4Q, 3P; Audience: M/J

Modo started his life on display as a freak in a side show. Was he rescued by Mr. Socrates, or was he merely taken from one bad situation and thrown into a new one almost as bad? What kind of savior would keep him locked up in two rooms of a house for years with only a housekeeper and a fight trainer for companions? What kind of savior would take him out of that situation, only to abandon him on the streets to see if he can fend for himself at the ripe old age of fourteen? Mr. Socrates, it turns out, has big plans for Modo, assuming he can pass this heartless test.

For some readers, it will come as no surprise to learn that Modo, born in the shadow of Notre Dame cathedral, has a humped back and a misshapen face. But Modo is not destined to become a bell ringer. Modo has the extraordinary ability to move the bones and muscles of his face and body into new configurations for a short time, to transfigure himself into the likeness of someone else. With that skill as well as the education and training he received in his years of isolation in Mr. Socrates's mansion, what will happen when a mysterious young woman hires him to learn more about her brother's association with the mysterious Young Londoners Exploratory Society?

What happens is far more than Modo or Octavia (the young woman) bargained for, leaving them fighting for their lives and the survival of their country against enemies that are both truly mad and absolutely ruthless. To make matters worse, it's not at all certain that Mr. Socrates and the organization he represents are any better.


Like Leviathan, this belongs to the growing list of YA steampunkNonstop action, moments of violence, tinges of gore, and horrifying hybrid human-machines (courtesy of a familiar mad Dr. Hyde) give this book sure appeal to boys who are willing to look past a cover that screams historical fiction. The villains are creepy and chilling (the image of a metal finger poking Modo's eyeball is hard to get rid of), and the aura of menace surrounding them is nearly tangible. Modo and Octavia are likable, resourceful characters, and the occasional bantering between them offers a welcome lightening of the mood. Where the book faltered a bit for me was in the revelation of the actual intentions of the villains. It felt a bit like an afterthought and the execution seemed a little rushed. But by that time, I was so invested in the characters and setting that the relatively weak payoff didn't get in the way of my enjoyment. Nothing in this book actually promises a sequel, but there are definitely strong hints that this is intended as a series. If that's true, I would happily read the next.

The website for the book looks like fun to poke around in. I enjoyed the Victorian factoids on the Steamtrunk page. Interesting difference between the Canadian/Australian and US covers. I think the US cover is more atmospheric, but the Canadian/Australian cover is probably more appealing to kids and teens.

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