Lena Mattacascar has grown up knowing that she's different. People rarely let her unusually large hands and feet pass without comment, and those who are polite enough to avoid comment are rarely able to stop themselves from staring. So she's trained herself to hide her feet under her long skirts, to always wear gloves, and to avoid bringing attention to herself.
Her grandmother has always maintained that Lena inherited 'goblinism' from her deadbeat father, and that, like him, she is a Peculiar, doomed to develop a difficult—and possibly evil—personality due to her lack of soul.
On her eighteenth birthday, she receives a brief letter and a small inheritance from her father, and she decides to set out and find out, once and for all, who and what he is—and in so doing, who and what she is as well.
The Peculiars, as you may have guessed from the cover, is set in a steampunk-y version of our past. So it's the Victorian era—Lena loves Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain—but one with dirigibles and aerocopters. It's also a frontier novel, in that the majority of it is set on the edge of civilization, and much of the storyline and plotting involves a wilderness area—populated by outlaws, convicts, and supposedly, Peculiars—called Scree. Like some (and in my opinion, too few) other alt-histories, McQuerry includes a historical note at the end that describes some of the real-life people she included in her world, as well as some of the changes she made (for instance, in her world, the Pony Express is still up-and-running in 1888, whereas in our world, it was only in operation until 1861).
It's an atmospheric read, and the physical details of the world are especially vivid. I suspect that Lena will give some readers trouble, as she's got a bad case of self-loathing (understandably, given her upbringing), and she has a tendency to ignore her gut instinct (also understandable, given her insecurity) which leads her to make some big, big mistakes. Like I said, both of those aspects of her personality make sense, but they also make her company a bit difficult to enjoy wholeheartedly. That said, it's always a relief to read about a heroine who is different from her peers in a way that really would make her life more difficult, rather than being too beautiful or too talented or too badass or too witty or too all-around awesome. (<--Come on, you know I'm right. I'm looking at you, The Selection.)
Of course, there are two guys: the adorable-but-engaged Jimson Quiggley (a woefully untrained librarian) and the charming-but-possibly-untrustworthy Thomas Saltre (a U.S. marshal). Some of the side characters—Mrs. Mumbles the Scree-cat, Tobias Beasley, and Mrs. Pollet, especially—are reminiscent of Diana Wynne Jones characters, but for the most part, I ultimately found that my interest in the book was more compelled by my curiosity about the world than by the characters or the storyline, which were pretty standard fare.
Nutshell: I'm not doing cartwheels, but a sequel appears, I'll read it.
Book source: ILL through my library.