ARC · Fantasy · Historical Fiction

Ordinary Monsters

First, thanks to the publisher (Flatiron Books) for the eARC of this novel. I was quite excited about being asked to participate in a blog tour for a book that was being marketed as “A Dickensian X-Men.” I mean, if that’s not my reading vibe, then idk what is? (I mean, it’s lacking the Victorian aspect, but Vicious and Vengeful anyone? We all know I loved those!) I am also kind of glad I got it as an eARC, even though I will die a “physical book” reader, because it meant I didn’t know how long this was before starting. And not that I’m afraid of big books or anything, but this 600+ page chonker might have intimidated me more if I’d seen it in IRL before starting. That being said, I absolutely got on hold for it at the library too, so that I could legit eventually hold it in my hands too.

Ordinary Monsters by J. M. Miro

“Difference, children, is not monstrous. It is nature at work.”

“Tick-tick-tick went all the gears in all the clocks in all the world.”

Ordinary Monsters is the first book in a trilogy about a group of children called Talents, those who are born with special skills (kind of like the X-Men). As the story progresses, we meet, among others, a girl who can become invisible (Ribs), a boy who can heal himself (Charlie), a girl who can manipulate dust (Komako), and a particularly special boy who glows blue, among other things (Marlowe). All of these children have been brought together from their respective original homes (as it were) to an estate in Scotland called Cairndale, a refuge and gathering place and educational home for the Talents of the world. However, there are secrets at Cairndale that make it not *quite* the safe space for Talents that its proprietor, Dr. Berghast, and assistant, Mrs. Harrogate, advertise (and believe). There is a power threatening to breach the walls of Cairndale and unleash the world of the dead into the world of the living, assisted by a “turned” Talent, Jacob Marber. The children, Mrs. Harrogate, and two grizzled old detectives (Coulten and Alice Quicke), must work to save themselves and the world from this dark power incarnate.

Well, this book was all about the vibes. From the very first page, the reader is plunged into a deeply gritty, violent underbelly of the world we think we know (starting with a murder and rainy night escape and foundling babies). From Victorian London streets to a midwest traveling circus to the deep south in Reconstruction-era United States to Meiji-era Tokyo to the countryside outside Edinburgh, this novel served atmosphere. It was in the seedy settings, gloomy descriptions, mysterious Dr. Berghast/Mrs. Harrogate and hidden purpose behind Cairndale, in the creepiness of the monsters (all the unnaturally pale skin and skittering-crawling movement, ooof), the slow reveals of true intent and covered-up details, in the quality of the Talents gifts, the gory violence, the small details like the clockwork bonebirds, and the bleeding through of the world of the dead into the world of the living. All in all, just a wonderful dark and gothic supernatural feel that, despite how long the novel was, I couldn’t get enough of. 

As far as the plot….I mean wow, this novel covered a lot of ground. For all that it was over 600 pages, I never once felt like things were dragging. Getting the backgrounds of all the characters and gathering of them all together, along with the setting of the scene, was a large chunk that spanned a great deal of both time and distance. And at not infrequent intervals, there were scenes of conflict and violence and drama that kept the reader on their toes, including a very fun (in the “I enjoyed reading it” sense) train battle scene, and quite a bit of build to the mystery of Cairndale and our secretive Dr. Berghast’s motivations. I was expecting was expecting a sort of “dark magic school” situation and while Cairndale did act as that, it did not spend much time in that role, specifically, within the plot. I actually loved that misdirect, as, though magic schools are a trope for a reason, it definitely fit this story better to hold space as more of a setting for other conflicts, as opposed to the “education” taking place there as its primary role.

I was also into the kind of winding path to get to the bottom of the real “big bad.” First, because for the most part our character perspectives are just as clueless as us as readers, like Alice Quicke (new to her role with Cairndale) and the young Talents, so it made sense for their puzzling through the details they have and dawning understanding to be slower. Second, because that sort of high action, slow mysterious reveal, fit the book’s overall vibe spectacularly. Related, I loved the guessing of who was actually the “bad guy.” That so many things happened to make picking any side mean rooting for some level of bad/evil…big yes. I am so here for those grey spaces and morally questionable characters. Spot on plot-character development in combination.

I have to be honest here and say that there were a few points from which I wanted more. This may sound contradictory because I just said that I liked the slow unrolling of the “truth,” but I have to say that a few times, I felt like more background/detail was necessary. There were a few times that characters, particularly Mrs. Harrogate and Alice, went from being confused and knowing nothing to being confident and in control over the space of one scene/POV transition. I just felt like their seemingly sudden understanding and capability felt a little too easy at times, without what even felt like enough time passing “off-screen” for them to have worked through/tested what it seemed like they had figured out. This was particularly apparent in regards to the keywrasse (who, as a character, I deeply hope we see more of, though that is not the point at hand here.)

Also, while I felt that all the characters were individually really well developed, I wish I had been able to buy into their connections with each other a bit more. Perhaps this is because I was just reading so fast that the time passing didn’t seem like long enough for robust connections to grow. However, though the book was long, there was also a lot of action and I am not sure that much objective time actually passed. Anyways, I felt like it was worth mentioning, to be transparent. (And because based on where it ended, with a reasonably wrapped-up cliffhanger situation, I’m hoping the next book is able to delve even deeper into this off-the-wall, found family, interpersonal connections aspect.) 

Well, this was a fantastically unique and entertaining mix of old-school penny dreadfuls, X-Men, and found family. There were twists and turns, myriad locations and action scenes, mysteries raised and solved, and a great supernatural dark gothic atmosphere in this (unexpected for its length) page-turner of a start to a trilogy. If you like a novel that serves major vibes and enjoy getting lost in a story, then I would definitely suggest giving this book a try.

“Justice is just a bucket with a hole in the bottom, as my father used to say.”

“She’d seen too many kids in that chair, hurt over and over by the world, until their hurting and their being hurt no longer seemed shameful at all. Those were the ones that worried her.”

“Scared is just your head telling your heart to be careful. It’s not a bad thing. It’s what you do with it that matters.”

“Your Dr. Berghast wishes to preserve the world as it is, the powerful in their interests, the meek in their place. But I…I do not believe it has to be the way it is. Do you know why the dark talents are called dark, Jacob? Oh, it is nothing to do with good or evil, with righteous or its perversion. It is because they make it possible for the weak to conceal themselves, to live like the strong.”

“Anything different from the normal appears monstrous. But it is not. It is not.”

“If you live long enough, you cease to be human, you cease to understand anything that fills the human heart. For the heart is made of time, and consumed by time, by the knowledge of its own eventual death, and Berghast could not die.”

“Thing is […] you waste all this time dreaming of where you came from, cause you know no one comes from nothing. And you tell yourself, if only you knew, then maybe you could see a reason for how you got to be the way you are. Why your life looks like it does. But there isn’t any reason, not really.”


2 thoughts on “Ordinary Monsters

  1. 600 pages! Wow! I don’t often read books this long but when I do I need them to hold my attention and this sounds like it did just that. Great review of what sounds like a promising trilogy. I’ll certainly see if our library has/can get hold of a copy … if not it could well find itself on my Wish List of books to purchase.

    Liked by 1 person

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