Occasionally an SF, fantasy or horror novel becomes such a mainstream success that you can’t help but notice it wherever books are sold. That is how I first discovered World War Z when I went to buy my textbooks for the new school year at my university’s book store. I felt the same way about Ransom Riggs’ debut novel Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. When I first picked up a paperback copy and flipped through the pages interspersed with bizarre black and white photos, I suspected I was holding in my hand a piece of weird fiction that is palatable for even the casual SF reader. For whatever reason I never read the book until now, so bear with me as I got for another retro-review.
The story is told from the perspective of 16 year old Jacob Portman, a spoiled rich kid who shows how much he despises other spoiled rich kids by acting like a spoiled rich kid. If he has one saving grace it is his relationship with his grandfather, an eccentric old man who tells stories of children with superpowers and evil monsters. As a child Jacob ate these stories up, but as he grew older, he came to suspect that these “fairy tales” are how his grandpa, a Jewish refugee who escaped Poland after the Nazis invaded, dealt with the horrors in his past. Normal life, however, ends when Jacob discovers his grandfather’s dead body in the woods and sees a humanoid creature with tentacles pouring from its mouth (tentacles always equals unfathomable terror). While the adults think Jacob just imagined the monster, he is still plagued by nightmares and on the advice of his therapist, takes a trip with his father to an island off the coast of Wales to find the orphanage his grandfather’s tales. Instead of a reality check, Jacob discovers that his grandfather was telling the truth after all…which means there really are soulless monsters out to get Jacob.
To be honest I really wanted to like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Rigg’s description of the Welsh isle was wonderfully done, the pictures that inspired him to write his story were satisfyingly odd and the competent world-building all kept me going with the novel until the end. Nevertheless, I still don’t believe I can recommend the novel in good faith. I found Jacob to be completely unlikable character and most of the other “peculiar children” lacked depth. There is an element of time travel that is not only confusing at times, but could also cause plot holes to arise if not handled correctly. Furthermore, I found the main villains to be more like mad scientists than the monster first glimpsed by Jacob at the beginning of the novel.
In many ways the novel reminded me of the Harry Potter series. Much like Harry, Jacob discovers he has connection with an entirely hidden world full of powerful individuals with their own lingo and secret schools that are under threat from dark forces. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, however, lacks the heart of Rowling’s series and is full of too many “what the f***” moments”. I thought the author missed a golden opportunity to have Jacob comment about the signs of serial killer when he meets a peculiar child who can bring life to clay dolls using the hearts of small animals. Then there was the uncomfortable scene where Jacob makes out with someone who is technically a senior citizen (see Twilight for a similar situation).
Despite all of those issues I still finished Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but I don’t think I will be picking up the sequel. Riggs had the makings of a great weird fiction tale, but he exorcised the black soul of that genre for a story that was acceptable to everyone. Instead of unique story, I found myself reading something that borrowed heavily from more successful series. I give Riggs credit for his use of found photography as an innovative way of story-telling, but it is not enough for me to give out of recommendation. Of course, I may be just an outlier here since this book is highly praised by almost everyone. So you don’t have to listen to me if you don’t want to. Read at your own risk.