A beautifully written mashup of well-beloved fantasy tales – great potential, but never managed to move far enough away from its inspirations to become its own story.
I honestly don’t know where to start, because I still have not quite settled on where I am. At the end of the day, Ordinary Monsters is my latest conundrum that tears me in every direction of love, annoyance, awe, and confusion.
Technically set in Victorian London and Edinburgh, Ordinary Monsters also wends through Gilded Age America in not-so-gilded Mississippi, the underworld of Tokyo during their transition to a growing power, and another entire world of its own dimension. Through these various settings a pair of detectives, a cagey man who knows more than he says and a woman who was once a Pinkerton and knows surprisingly little about what her job actually entails, track down “special” children in order to bring that back to their special school in Edinburgh. To accomplish this, they bob and weave around a baddie who is following, an exile of the school who you really want to wonder throughout whether he’s actually the bad guy (it feels sometimes like unreliable narrators have kind of ruined the world). At the super secret school for these children, “the Talents”, a supposedly benevolent doctor purports to create a safe place for them to thrive. What follow is for you to find out, but it’s likely right along the lines of what you imagine.
The hands down highlights of this book are the incredible world building and, because this was audio, the exceptional performance of Ben Onwukwe.
Victorian Gothic always has potential to be dark and beautiful, but also can easily turn to gore and camp instead of intelligent creepiness. Miro nails the beauty in darkness here, creating an atmosphere you can feel while listening to Onwukwe’s voice that is perfectly timbered for this genre and time period. The settings are real, but how they are written makes the fantastical pieces believable and the characters ones you want to wrap your arm around and protect. Throughout all of it, Onwukwe hits every character hard, with an accent that would have you running straight down the dark alley he just told you had the really big baddie standing at the end. Despite a slowish start, I really wanted to love this.
What Ordinary Monsters did to lose me was to constantly remind me, to the point of distraction, of a plethora of other fantasy stories I’ve loved over the years. As Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope.”. There is much truth to this quote and I will never decry anyone for their inspiration, but in this particular case the kaleidoscope does not distort enough to stand on its own. While the story itself is woven creatively, I was halfway through this book and described it to a colleague as “Victorian X-Men who landed in The Golden Compass, while traipsing around collecting more of Miss Peregrine’s peculiar children”.
At the end of the day, it’s a beautifully written story where the effort was placed on the writing rather than creating something new.
J. M. Miro
Narrated by Ben Onwukwe
June 7, 2022
Thank you to NetGalley and Macmillan Audio for an advance copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.