If I told you that this was the second book featuring a young person covered in hair and living in a freak show in Victorian England for middle grade readers that I’ve read this year, would you be surprised? It seems Victorian fiction is one of the hot trends for 2013 . It’s a fascinating trend, because most of the stories I’ve read set in these times have either distinct fantasy or steampunk elements used in the storytelling. Of course, this is particularly exciting for me, since it means they then fall under the banner of speculative fiction.
A few years ago if I’d even mentioned steampunk, it would described a fairly small idiosyncratic subgenre of fantasy/science fiction books, mostly written for adults. Outside of Japanese animated movies, you’d find hardly anything that could be labelled steampunk for kids. Then something happened. Some strange alignment of an interest in the Victorian era and a love for all sorts of goggles and steam machines and mechanized top hats began to drift into the young adult genre . . . and now it’s safe to say it has reached the middle grade fiction.
Wild Boy by Rob Lloyd Jones is the story of a young man who was born covered in hair and has spent most of his life being treated like a monster. But the outward appearance of a freak hides the brilliance of a deductive mind that sees and absorbs all the details of the unforgiving world of Victorian England that he inhabits. Living in a freak show surroundings, Wild Boy takes some small pleasure in being able to travel and observe different people and places in the moments when he is not kept inside. When a man from the circus is killed violently and the circumstantial evidence points to Wild Boy, there’s nothing he can say to convince others of his innocence–all they see is the monster. Desperate to escape hanging for a crime he did not commit, he puts his deductive skills to work in ferreting out the real murder. Solving the murder will take him on a path that is very dark indeed, uncovering macabre experiments, dangerous enemies and terrible betrayals. In the end it will be Wild Boy’s mind and heart put to the test in solving this murder mystery!
It’s clear that the author has some love of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, and this book readily reflects that love. Wild Boy’s observation skills and keen reasoning are reminiscent of the great Sherlock Holmes. Despite his abilities, Wild Boy still has to deal with the fact that others don’t see beyond his outward hairy appearance and a fierce temper that has come with being mistreated his whole life. Underneath the fur and beyond the brilliant mind, Wild Boy is still a boy who is troubled and traumatized and wishes he looked like everyone else. The author does an admirable job of writing this character so that readers can identify with him and become invested in his story.
The setting is pure Victorian London, full of all the atmospheric elements that define the place. The author clearly knows how to tell a historically placed story–readers can believe in the setting and begin to comprehend it without having to have a working knowledge of what London was like at the time. There’s a good balance here between setting the story in place and avoiding too many references or place names that would be alien to younger reader, or one unfamiliar with Victorian times.
While there are plenty of genres at work in this particular novel, the main story arc is the mystery itself. Overall I thought this was well handled, balancing deductive insights with action and danger and leading up to the final revelations. Remember I mentioned steampunk? this book has more than a little steampunk woven into the mystery that is at the center of the story. It moves the book out of the merely historically fantastic and sets it firmly into the ”Victorian science fiction” universe.
I quite enjoyed this read overall. My only real issues are with the fact that Wild Boy’s speech patterns tend to fluctuate. Much of the time he appears to speak a more formal English than that of typical lower class, but every so often there’s some street slang or pattern to his dialog. I’m not certain it’s entirely believable that Wild Boy would speak a more formal style, given that he wouldn’t have had much exposure to it. While I could imagine that he could adopt accents and manners rather easily given his observation abilities, I don’t know if his speaking is consistent with his situation in life. Still, I think it a small thing in an otherwise solid reading experience.
This might spark your interest if you are a fan of Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, though this focuses on mystery more than horror. Middle grade readers who are interested in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes might also want to check this one out!