Canadian author JM Miro’s Ordinary Monsters, a gaslamp fantasy with powered children at a secret school, an implacable enemy and an inimical other-world has plenty of obvious antecedents. But Miro has managed to spin these familiar elements into an enjoyable, tense and sometimes surprising narrative.
A glowing blue baby is rescued from a train carriage in England. Eight years later, that boy named Marlowe is performing in a travelling circus in America. He is one of two boys that Frank Coulton and Alice Quicke have been sent to find and bring back to a sanctuary for powered youngsters in Scotland. The other is Charlie Ovid, a twelve year old with healing powers. But someone is after them and they have to fight their way to Scotland. Once there they find a school of sorts for children like them and with a newly formed gang of five (the two boys with two girls and another boy) they start to investigate strange goings on. This investigation will lead them to discover that their world is not all good versus evil but will also help prepare them for the inevitable confrontation.
There are so many clear antecedents for Ordinary Monsters that it is hard to know where to start. But probably the most obvious are Harry Potter, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children and the X-Men. Starting with Marlowe – the mysterious “boy who lived” (although who is not the centre of this story) – who must face his resurgent nemesis, a character who can cheat death itself with extraordinary healing powers and a gothic school for young powered people. But there is also the Victorian styling of Charlese Dickens and more recent books like Doctor Strange and Mister Norrell and a trip to a netherworld that could well have been called the Upside Down à la Stranger Things.
But it turns out in the thick of it that none of that matters. What matters is that Miro has taken these and plenty of other elements to create a tense, rattling and exciting yarn. He very quickly makes readers care about these characters and then puts them through the ringer, upping the stakes with every turn in the plot. And in a way having these recent pop-cultural touchstones helps the fantasy elements go down more easily.
So that while Ordinary Monsters might not be staggeringly original it blends these familiar elements in a new way – Miro has created a vivid world with interesting magic rules and is different enough to stand on its own two feet. It is dark, it is full of characters with ambiguous morals but it puts the children at the centre and allows them to carry the heart of the narrative. While the main narrative is brought to a close there are threads left hanging and the promise of more with the final sentence. With these characters and this milieu Miro has done more than enough to bring readers back for more.
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