Monday, September 18, 2023

THE PECULIARITIES, flawed but fun


Tachyon Publications
$17.95 tradepaper, available now

Rating: 3.75* of five

The Publisher Says: From popular historical alternate history author David Liss (A Conspiracy of Paper) comes the tale of a clueless young man embroiled in a deadly supernatural mystery in London. Rooted in strange conspiracies and secret societies, this absurdist comedic romp combines strange bedfellows with murderous creatures, resulting in an unexpectedly delightful consequences.

All of his life, Thomas Thresher has been free of obligation and responsibility, but that is over now. He is a twenty-three-year-old man whose best days are behind him. Thomas's older brother Walter has trapped him in a tedious clerical job at the family bank in London, and Thomas is expected to wed a wealthy young woman in whom he has no interest.

But Thomas has more serious problems than those of a disaffected young man. There are irregularities at the bank he cannot explain. His childhood friend has mysteriously turned up dead. Worse, a verdant skin malady has infected him: leaves have begun sprouting on his skin. Thomas must conclude that it is due to the long-rumored Peculiarities. London's famous grey fog has been concealing a rash of unnatural afflictions—and worse, the murderous Elegants.

As Thomas grows leafier, the conspiracies surrounding him become more apparent. He cannot determine whom to trust: his own family; his banking co-workers and superiors; the beautiful widow of his companion; the woman he is to marry. Or perhaps a lycanthropic medium; the members of a secret occult society...or even Aleister Crowley.


My Review
: Clueless whiny nepo baby Thomas Thresher, clerking at his family's London bank and living a really cushy life, starts to grow leaves from his body. Promising start to a David Liss story. We've got London, though in the early twentieth century not the eighteenth, we've got business shenanigans at the bank, and a world in which there are children with lobster claws, women giving birth to rabbits, killer fogs of supernatural origin, and a werewolf psychic. Oh, and Aleister Crowley.

Why does Walter, Thomas's brother, have such wood for Thomas's marriage to Esther, a Jewish woman with pots of money? What is driving the oddball events in the bank (seriously dodgy loans and very odd property acquisitions) that aren't in service of making money? And, last but not least, what the hell are all these leaves doing on Thomas's body?

The way Thomas sets about trying to make sense of the Peculiarities, the way he simply rolls up his sleeves, picks a few leaves off, and starts looking around for information that could help him...these are positives. They do lead, quite naturally, to a slightly off-putting disconnected style, episodes instead of one smooth narrative. That wasn't entirely to my personal liking but I got accustomed to it.

What I very much didn't get used to was Esther's being the butt of so many nasty, mean-spirited jokes not least from Thomas...the man she's set to marry. It made me very uncomfortable and was absolutely never addressed...Esther end the way she began, a one-note anti-Jewish joke. I couldn't figure out why she was so awful, compared to Thomas's suddenly acquired love interest who was a cypher.

That, and a really cringey sexual assault scene, are the source of my lower-than-expected rating.

I was very taken by the Peculiarities themselves. The fact that we don't find out what the hell's going on here isn't a major issue for me because the verve of Author Liss's tellings of the supernatural events was the actual point. There's no need to explain strange doings if the point of them is to be strange. What Author Liss does overexplain is the world of 1899 London and its many and various restrictions on women and Others. That's really overdone.

Something that might be overdone for some readers is the pseudo-Victorian locutions of Thomas's narration. I myownself found it fun and just on the good side of stilted, but others might feel differently. If you opt to read a sample of the Kindle edition, you'll know right away if this is for you or not. What nearly scuppered my interest, and greatly slowed my reading, was the chest-pokey second-person narration parts.

I must say that, with the different historical luminaries swirling through the story, I was a little bit let down that none of them played a big role in the solution to the strange issues in the book. (Well, except Aleister Crowley.)

Not a perfect read, but a good one; a lot of stuff gets wrapped up in the last ten percent of the book but not, by any means, even close to everything. That is, for me, perfectly okay because very few things in life are wrapped up in tidy little bows. The Peculiarities remain peculiar. And most enjoyably so.

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