DISCLAIMER: As readers I think we sometimes take ownership of authors and books--- we stake our "professional" reputation on them (before I worked in publishing I was a bookseller and would sell Slade's books....a lot), we are excited when they succeed and, if we discover them before they are known by the greater public, we feel a sense of pride when they gain recognition and a wide readership.
The marketing of Hunchback and Slade's prospective Steampunk series strikes me as Harper's attempt at the Next Big Thing. If it becomes the Next Big Thing ( with key chains and happy meals and knapsacks and movies) ... I just wanna say, having read EVERY SINGLE Slade book ever.( including the "ologies" and those little ghost stories )... that I staked my "professional reputation" on this author long ago.... and I, of course, have impeccable taste ...
The Hunchback Assignments is a Steampunk retelling of Notre Dame de Paris by Hugo....but this time with steampunk, explosions, sinister plots and a grotesque London underbelly...
Modo was purchased from a traveling freak show at a young age by the enigmatic Mr. Socrates. Socrates and his body guard Tharpa educated Modo in all things military, cultural and intellectual: priming Modo for a great future as a shape-shifting spy. See, Modo has the ability to transform his deformed appearance and hunchbacked frame into anyone he wants: provided he clear his mind and concentrate.
When he becomes a teenager, Mr. Socrates leaves him to his own devices and Modo sets up practice as a shadowy private investigator who uses the rooftops and his shape shifting abilities to unravel mysteries in the darkest parts of Victorian London.
Meanwhile, Octavia Milkweed, a resourceful girl determined to shake the shackles of Victorian propriety, uncovers a sinister plot involving children tortured into strange creations. The reader discovers the kids are prey to the devilish Mr. Hyde whose unethical experiments are a hybrid of warped evolution, steam and industry.
Modo and Octavia intersect and learn they are both connected to Mr. Socrates and both vital to a dangerous mission involving corrupt politics; underhanded science and clues only the maze of the London sewers will reveal.
There is a lot to like about the novel. The first being its sheer originality. No two Slade books are alike and Hunchback is no exception. Next, the characters. Modo is utterly believable and touchingly vulnerable ( without naivete) and humane. A conflicted toy for a sinister master, Modo is a misdirected and awkward outsider whose unsymmetrical appearance reflects the emotional confusion within. Next, Octavia! I adored Octavia: a strong, feisty and opinionated heroine resourceful and sly who can shift in and out of accent and appearance as quickly as Modo can out of shape. Young readers will find traits in each to relate to.
The basic evil threading the plot: from Modo's early beginnings in a traveling freakshow; Hyde's grotesque experiments and the grainy and smoky Victorian perimeters wherein the story unfolds offer a chilling darkness I also enjoyed. The juxtaposition of dark and light: be it through appearance; theme or inward struggle will give young readers a lot to think about.
I enjoy YA novels that serve a binary purpose: to entertain young readers with surface appeal of a fast-paced enjoyably "meaty" story while being fun to dig into for older readers with a penchant for YA.
The writing itself is technically perfect ( unsurprising considering the source) . I am fascinated by the word-pairings; sounds, consonance and alliteration which prove the novel perfect to read aloud. There are also some underline-worthy sentences---- such as when Modo falls asleep and "into a story" ( loved that picture)
While Slade's previous novels dapple in theology ( see Megiddo's Shadow and Dust), here we have visceral, calcuated science( a bleak enemy) which, when pitted against the stark humanity and emotional resonance of an endearing, effusive protagonist presents a strange paradox.
From my understanding, the novel is the first in a series which will feature 19th C classics retold through a "Steampunk" lens. Wells, Verne and Doyle ( Wilde, even) seem quite logical offerings. Hugo, on the other hand, is a perplexing choice. Perhaps the Hugo portion of the story with its Romantic connotations represents the changing pace and world the Victorians underwent: from the philosophical Romanticism of the Century through the chugging Industrial revolution ushering in science, calculation, and, of course, steam and metal.
Hunchback explores the clash between both.
I think kids ( mostly thoughtful ones) will enjoy the action; the pace; the freakshow and mystery; the sewers and, most importantly, the connection they will establish with Octavia and Modo as well as the queer absurdity which makes the plot almost impossible to explain.
I found that this novel lacked a certain spark ( for a lack of an inexplicable explanation ) that Slade's other books possessed. But, I have a feeling he is just warming up to this element. In the next book in the series he will have staked his ground. The author obviously has an inherently "geeky" side and it is delightful to watch him play with it in here.
Perhaps, immediately, one might think: "It's not as good as Jolted". But they're just very different.
And, as my friend Court would say: "Of course it's not as good as Jolted! NOTHING'S as good as Jolted"
She may be right---- so, to be on the safe side, you should go to Chapters or Amazon or your nearest bookstore and BUY BOTH ....
visit Hunchback here
EDIT: Remember that gawdawful Russell Smith column in the Globe about how "authors don't need friends" and he needs no community and what's-her-face who wrote Transient Dancing just need the work to speak for them? A couple of weeks ago? That one? Yah. Well. Q&A with Mr. Slade defending author/reader community. I like this approach better.