Greenwillow Books: 384 pp., $16.99, ages 9 and up
The average 16-year-old who writes usually does so for school, bringing the same level of rigor and enthusiasm to the endeavor as he would to cleaning a public toilet.
Not Stefan Bachmann, a teenager who makes his authorial debut with a middle-grade novel so polished and fun to read that one would never suspect he was in high school when he began to write it.
“The Peculiar” is the title of Bachmann’s steampunk fairy tale set in an alternate Victorian-era London — a book that, at times, recalls Dostoevsky’s “Crime and Punishment,” Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” and more recent classics, such as J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter” and Lemony Snicket’s “A Series of Unfortunate Events.” It’s a story populated with unusual characters and mechanical contraptions that service a gruesome plot involving a serial kid-snatcher, a dunderheaded parliamentarian, an evil fairy and a pair of impoverished kids who live in the fairy slums and abide by a single rule.
“Don’t get yourself noticed and you won’t get yourself hanged” is the mantra of Bartholomew Kettle and his sister Hettie. Both are ugly, half-fairy changelings, or peculiars, though Bartholomew looks more human. Hettie’s ears are pointed and tree branches sprout from her scalp, making her a prime target for the kid-snatcher, who hasn’t only been plucking half-fairy children from the slums where the Kettles live. Whomever it is has been hollowing out their bodies and leaving their corpses floating in the Thames.
It’s a grim story, but Bachmann leavens the dark goings-on with whimsy, assigning characters such memorable names as Mr. Lickerish and Lord Lillicrap and, like so many beloved stories for children, casting the adults as evil villains or abject idiots.
No one in the book is more lovably idiotic than Arthur Jelliby, an unambitious, conflict-avoidant politician who’d rather buy chocolates for his wife than do any real service to the people of London. But when he inadvertently discovers the identity of the kid-snatcher, he is motivated to take action and save the changeling children.
In the process, Mr. Jelliby exits his comfort zone in spectacular and hilarious fashion, riding in carriages pulled by wolves and on elevated steam trains that take him through unsavory neighborhoods populated with gnomes and other creatures. He huffs and puffs his way across London on foot, chasing a mechanical carrier pigeon with a secret message that might offer a clue about how to stop the snatcher.
Pursuing the bird, the portly Jelliby “pictured himself balancing on a chimney somewhere, swinging wildly about with a butterfly net. It was not a nice thought,” Bachmann writes in a humorous, fast-paced story that sees Jelliby partner with Bartholomew and traipse across England, visiting a goblin market, the carriage of a fairy witch and other unseemly locales in pursuit of Hettie, who was snatched one night in her sleep.
Bachmann, who is now 18, writes as if he didn’t just read classic books. His prose is so elegantly witty, it’s as if he absorbed them and is writing by osmosis. It’s no wonder “The Peculiar” was blurbed by literary superstars Rick Riordan on its front cover and Christopher Paolini on its back. “The Peculiar” may be the book’s title, but it also applies to this unusually gifted young writer.