I’m a little tired and world wherry when it comes to ‘talented child’ stories. This may seem a little harsh, indeed it is, but as the basis for a plot it has been around along time, particularly in fantasy, sciFi and other genre fiction. Admittedly you can say the same for almost any major plot device. There is nothing new under the sun. But Genre fictions in particular tend to attract this one for, admittedly, good reasons.
You know the plot I suspect, but let me lay it out anyway just in case you wondering what I’m talking about.
A young person, of confused parentage, most often an orphan, living in reduced circumstances, starts to manifest unusual powers. Powers they don’t understand, and deny having even to themselves, Powers no one can explain. Generally these powers are of a kind they should never have due to been the wrong class, or race, or gender or because they have ginger hair… Powers they have to hide from everyone but a couple of friends, who will agree to keep the talented child’s secret.
There will of course be sinister figures of authority hunting them once through some misadventure or lack of understanding they almost reveal themselves. There will be a mysterious adult confidant who will advise them, but that confidant will be of some reduced station difficult for the talented child to fully trust. At some point the friends will be imperilled because of the talented child and trust between them will also break down. Tension will build and build towards some from of showdown. And things will be come ever more perilous…
There is nothing wrong with this plot. It has been a very successful plot for a great many books. It has echo’s every Harry Potter novel for a start. Though Potter may have any accolades but originality isn’t one of them. There are aspects of the Nania books in there too, and the sword in the stone. Gaiman’s ‘The Books of Magic’, indeed even Star Wars when you come down to it is the story of a Talented Child coming into powers he doesn’t understanding. All of which, and many more, predate JK Rowling’s tales of a wizarding world. And post Potter there are many more. But as I said, with good reason, because as a fantasy plot it provides mystery and as the protagonist explores their own powers and how they fit into the world the reader is gradually exposed to that world themselves in a natural organic way.
But as I said in the beginning, I am a little tired and world wherry of ‘Talented child’ stories. Mainly because I’ve read so many of them.
I’m explaining all this because of my reaction when I was asked if I would like a review copy of Monique Orphan, by the books author, Stephen Palmer. I was a little trepidatious about it. The name of the book, and the blurb on the back, more or less screamed ‘Talented child plot’ at me. In fact it couldn’t have scream this any louder. This would be that same well trodden path, and while it could prove to be a very well written, well thought out and a beautifully crafted jaunt down that well trodden path, it was still going to be that well trodden path all the same.
In short, I didn’t feel it was a book that appealed to me.
Partly because I know I can walk around my house (others would call it my library), and lay my hands on many books that would all fit neatly into the ‘talented child’ plot. Books I’ll have read at some point over the last few decades, in many cases more than once. So what I look for in a book is something different, something new… Another reason is related to this, the protagonists of all Talented Child novels tend to have a very defined moral compass. We (the reader) are supposed to feel sorry for them, root for them, and want them to over come the dice that fate has rolled them because they are representations of good, if they seem occasionally misguided in how they seek to be good. As such I tend to find the protagonists tend to start off ‘nice but dim’ and while they always make mistakes, they remain ‘the good ones.’ As characters they lack shades of grey, and these days I find such characters dull.
And here in lays a confession, I’d never been tempted to buy and read Stephen Palmers earlier series, The Factory Girl, despite the books having beautiful Tom Brown covers, and reviews from people I trusted. When I looked at them last year I read the blurb and despite the premise sounding interesting my first thought was ‘talented child’ and I decided to give them a miss… So when Stephen asked me if I wanted a review copy of Monique Orphan, and I read the amazon blurb, I thought I knew what I was in store for. I thought I knew exactly what I was going to get. That self same well trodden path, down which I’d walked as a reader so many times. The same path I had side stepped with his earlier series. Indeed if the blurb was anything to go by it was even more a ‘talented child’ novel than the factory girl novels.
Here is that blurb, just to illustrate my point…
In an alternate 1899…
Monique, resident for as long as she can remember at Shrobbesbury Orphanage, has a strange talent, which she neither understands nor can control. This talent, however, is only supposed to be possessed by men.
Should she conceal her abilities in order to survive, or should she be true to herself? If she hides her gift she will languish, yet if she reveals her true self she will be hunted down and experimented upon by men whose talents outshine her own…
A most peculiar adventure through a fantastical alternative fin de siècle Britain where the darkest creations are those that come from within.
So ‘Talented child’ it is then…
But, as Stephen had ask me if I would like a copy to review, and I’d given him my usual speech ‘I don’t take review copies, I prefer to buy books, that way if I don’t like them I don’t feel obliged to write a review, as I only ever do honest reviews and only ever review books I love.’ , my catch all for getting out of writing derogatory reviews if I hate a book. I bit the bullet and bought a copy. Despite the book not exactly leaping out at me in the ‘I must read this’ stakes.
So, then the book arrived, and joined the to-read pile on my bedside cabinet. Where I may add it was up against quite a lot of other solid contenders, vying for my attention. Several mainstream books people had recommended me of late which I hadn’t gotten to, a couple of classics I wanted to revisits, a couple of other books by indie/small press authors I’d wanted to read.
The usual pile in fact.
And there it sat… staring back at me. Saying , ‘Hi, I’m another ‘Talented child’ book, please read me… Oh go on please…‘ While I tired to ignore it.
I meanwhile finished a fabulous mainstream book that had been recommended to me late one evening. Norwegian author Camilla Bruce’s novel You Let Me In. Which while I won’t be writing a review (as its mainstream published and doesn’t need any help to find an audience from me) But I’ll recommend to everyone now in passing. Having finished this, thought about it, scribbled some copious notes on a couple of aspects of the book in question, thought about it some more and unwisely gotten myself a coffee, I reached the point at which I needed to rummage through my to read pile trying to decide what to delve into next.
I was not of a mind to read another mainstream novel, or one of the looming classics. Wuthering Heights in my opinion should only be read in the dark of mid winter with a gales blowing out side, rain lashing at the windows, a small fire in the hearth and by the light of a guttering candle. Teesside weather was remarkably calm that evening, so Emily Bronte would have to wait… Therefore I was left with one of the several small press novels in the pile. One of which by an American friend I was struggling with, another was a sequel to a book I read and reviewed earlier in the year, that I was looking forward to but wasn’t quite ready to read, and one I suspect would turn out to be not entirely atypical romance novel by one of my favourite small press writers, which might, like Wuthering Heights also deserve a good storm brewing in the heavens when I sat down to read it. And finally Stephens, Monique Orphan, for which I was still struggling to find excitement to temper, given the whole ‘talented child premise.
Also I had no idea what kind of weather it might need, though gloomy overcast drizzle is generally good for novels set in Victorian times I’ve found.
However, I realised, one of these books I had been specifically asked to read. The authors of the other indie books in the pile didn’t know I had the books in question, because I don’t tend to tell authors I have bought their books until I have read them, and then only if I loved them, for the same reason I don’t review books unless I love them. There is enough negativity in the world, why the fuck add to it… And just because I didn’t like a book doesn’t mean no one else will.
The upshot of all this consideration was then only one of these books I felt obligated, to an extent, to at least give a go. Thus while fully aware I was in for a ‘talented child’ novel, and well aware of my reservations and lack of enthusiasm for that same old well trodden path, I decided to bite the bullet and give Monique Orphan a go. So I picked it up off the to-read pile, planning to read the first couple of chapters before calling it a night, and then seeing where I went from there.
Dawn broke the following morning around 8.00 am…
I know this because of the glow beyond the curtains, and my sudden realisation I was half way through a novel about a talented child and had somehow forgotten that sleep was an option with some wisdom to it, even if I didn’t have to go to work that morning…
Now, if you have been paying attention, and your still reading this somewhat extended witter even by my standards, you’ve probably guessed that I wouldn’t be writing this blog, which is by its meandering way leading to a review of Monique Orphan unless I loved the novel… To reiterate, I don’t write reviews unless I like what I am reviewing. The world has enough negativity in it without me adding to it, and frankly writing a shitty review is easy, people sadly do that all the time, tearing things down is easy, too easy, so I see no reason to do it as well. I may’ve read far too many Talented Child novels in the past but there are plenty of people who won’t have, people who might love this book even if I don’t. So if I hadn’t enjoyed the book, well why share my opinion?
But I did love it. I loved it despite it being a talented child novel, despite it walking that well trodden path… Though despite is the wrong word, and while it walked that path, while indeed everything I wrote earlier about ‘Talented Child’ plots in general entirely applies to Monique Orphan, the novel is also so much more. It may walk the familiar path but it blurs the lines. Indeed, it doesn’t so much follow the path so much as wander back and forth across it while heading in the same direction. It takes, in short, a more interesting, stranger, and a more engrossing path.
For a start there are lots of little details of Monique’s world that are both that every familiar late Victorian setting and aren’t. This late Victorian England is not an England you would recognise. For one thing it is much diminished it size. Somewhere up beyond the midlands you enter Danelaw, a northern England that is separate and rule form Jorvik (the old Norse name for York) and while this is only mentioned in passing to an extent, as a Yorkshireman I can not tell you how much that idea appealed to me… There’s also an undercurrent of religious bigotry left over from Tudor times that I suspect has a little more truth to it than other depictions of Victorian England would have you believe. Northern France, Paris in particular, has been drown by malignant magical means and London is full of French refugees. There are river spirits, indeed Sabrina goddess of the river from actual folklore puts in an appearance, there are strange nocturnal bees, indoor rain, quires of vixens, dirigible’s used as giant night lights and other assorted oddities.
Monique’s world is then an odd one. But, and here is where Palmer holds your interest as a reader, it is explored though the eyes of those to whom all this is, to an extent at least, normal. A plethora of oddities are mentioned as much in passing as anything. Like the Nordic nations of the north celebrating Yule with a huge, presumably magical, light show that includes Odin on his eight-legged horse passing through the sky. A sight that the orphans witness from a roof top as the northern boarder is not faraway… Like the main character putting up an umbrella to walk through the indoor rain, then taking it down again when they get outside to a overcast by rain free day. All this strangeness is presented as normal, and feels normal when you read it. Which is quite a trick for any writer to pull off. Nothing here is weighed down with exposition beyond what its needed.
That same light touch is applied to the characters themselves, in particular Monique herself. The strangeness of the setting takes second place to story. As does the mystery’s surrounding the main character. There is so much untold, because there is so much she does not know about her own history. Yet it is alluded to, in half guesses, in the phrasing of a sentence. You know there is more to tell, You know there are reasons for things she does, and how she reacts to events. You also know that she doesn’t understand them herself, at times she has little more than deep feelings about the sense of things. There is also her stagnated sense of self-worth, a product of the society she lives in and the lack of value it places not only on orphans but on female orphans in particular. You get a sense she is hiding much of the truth about herself and her past, from herself. She has forgotten more than she choses to remember.
The strangeness and oddity of the setting might have been enough to keep me reading on its own, the strangeness and oddity of Monique herself certainly was. But what really sets this apart form all those ‘Talented Child’ novels I have read before is the moral ambiguity of the protagonist. A moral ambiguity that makes some degree of sense, a reaction to the environment in which she is being raised, and the social positioning of a orphan girl, in a society that places no value in the poor.
There is a thread of moral ambiguity to Monique. Moral ambiguities she justify to herself as much by choosing what she believes to be the truth of things and how she should react, and how she treats and uses her friends. She is manipulative, she uses charm, and threat with equal measure. She will act out of virtue, saving a friend, only to then use that very action to blackmail and guilt tripping her friends in to doing what she wants them to do. Sure these actions are justified, by her own internal moral compass that points somewhere vaguely north, very vaguely. But survival which is her primary justification at first gives way to another, darker justification. When she is gifted an escape she turns her back against it in favour of pursuing a justice of her own design. When her friends are against this she manipulates them further until they agree to do as she wants.
What is great about this, and the way it is written, is your led along with it all, you follow her logic, yet the moment you take a step back you can see what she is planning, even if she never uses the words, is dark and dangerous, and very much the wrong side of that moral compass. You can justify it by thinking that she doesn’t realise exact how dark what she is undertaking to do is, because Mr Palmer steers you to doing so, but then there are odd moments when a line or two of the narrative makes you realise that while she might deny it, even to herself, she knew, deep down, exact what she was doing and what she hoped to achieve. Exactly what she was manipulating her friends to do as well.
I read the book in two long sittings, I quite literally found it hard to put down. I loved the setting, and the characters and Monique herself. I walked hand in hand down that winding path that didn’t lead where the path of the ‘talent child’ normally leads. The dark overtones, and moral ambiguity were all perfectly pitched. And in the end I was left thinking, if all ‘Talent Child’ novels were like this I would never get sick of them…
It is a little dark, it is a little chilling even. Monique’s world is dark and chilling and she is a perfect reflection of it. In the end I can only say this, when I finally finished it, I ordered the next two books of the trilogy straight away. You, dear reader, I suspect would do the same. I look forward to them arriving. I also look forward to a brooding sky with a hit of damn in the air, the kind of sky that makes you shiver a little… Which would seem the perfect weather for reading these books..