As everyone knows, ‘you’ve gotta have a gimmick!’ and the particular gimmick of Ransom Riggs’ first novel, Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children is that the novel was illustrated with astounding creepy – and genuine – Victorian photography. The author had pieced together a story of children with strange abilities to are hidden away in a ‘time loop’ on a remote Welsh island, pursued by hideous hollowghasts and wights, and discovered by Jacob who is on the trail of his recently deceased grandfather’s secret past. Boiled down, it’s a young X-Men in gothic trappings.
The books are beautifully designed and illustrated, the photographs wonderfully strange, and at the time of reading Miss Peregrine, two or three years ago, I remember absolutely loving reading it. Riggs has an expert way with atmosphere, and I can still distinctly recall a chapter of genuine fear – the kind I don’t anticipate experiencing in a book even when it’s from so-called masters of horror – as Jacob, alone in the basement of an abandoned house, hears the footsteps above him of what will turn out to be the ‘peculiar children.’ Although occasionally there was an element of ‘shoehorning’ in order to fit references to the photographs he had collected in, altogether it was really great book.
However, by the time the sequel rolled around, I would have been hard pressed to tell you a single thing about the book. As great a reading experience as it had been, it was somehow oddly forgettable, and I have a sneaking feeling Hollow City may be the same.
Before that, though, I would like to heap some praise on the book. Firstly, Ransom Riggs is still an excellent stylist. His prose is elegant, and his ability to build an atmosphere is exceptional. Like Miss Peregrine before it, Hollow City has a macabre, grand gothic feel to it from start to finish that belies it’s pulpy undercarriage, and for the most part the photography serves as illumination (rather than a stick to prod forward) the story (although there are less downright creepy photographs this time round; perhaps harder to come by when the sequel rolls around!) Hollow City also does a fine job of deepening the mythos of the first book without suffering traditional fantasy-book-two syndrome of throwing everything at the wall in panic when the reins are loosened. Hollow City sends the bunch to World War II England on a ticking time quest to save their protector, Miss Peregrine, who is stuck in the body of a bird and must be restored within days lest she become stuck. There is a clear sense of ever-present danger, and, crucially, never in a neutered children’s-book-villain way; the wights chasing them have brutal Nazi overtones and in one set-piece in a remote shed in particular, the violence is vivid whilst neatly avoiding sensationalism.
Where Hollow City mis-steps is in its band of characters. Individually, they are a fascinating bunch: gloriously grotesque with a (mostly) unique bunch of powers that, to a one, they almost all never use. Hugo, whose power involves the bees who live in his stomach, gets the best set-piece of the novel when he unleashes all the insects of a field upon their attackers, and it’s a wonderful moment for his character. As for the others: the light-as-air girl spends the book sniffling and upset, the super-strong girl rips off the odd door-knob, the boy with the power of resurrection does nothing but moan and be mildly fascist, and the girl with the power to make fireballs only occasionally singes an attacker. In fairness, the invisible boy has his uses, but the mantle of hero is placed upon Jacob, whose only power is essentially monster-radar (until, of course, the final pages.) Riggs does a decent job of balancing the band’s places in the story so we don’t feel like any are mysteriously absent, but by the same token, after creating such grand characters, it’s a shame that they’re not particularly utilised. Two of their original band are left behind a few chapters in, and it’s key that it makes not a jot’s difference to anything that follows which characters had remained behind. Perhaps some of this arises from the first person narrative: if this is Empire Strikes Back to A New Hope (which, based on the cliffhanger, it absolutely is) then what should really have been happening is the characters becoming separated and having their own adventures, allowing someone other than Jacob to come to the forefront.
None of this is to suggest that nothing is happening in the book. Quite the opposite: it’s constant, tense action, with the whole group caught up in the quick-march of the narrative. And, at the risk of the previous paragraph being an all-consuming criticism, Riggs’ prose style and maturity of character and atmosphere makes up for a good deal of what seems to be missing; he would be more than capable of crafting an exciting reading experience with nothing actually happening in the book, and it’s something of an odd mark of praise that I’m frustrated that the quirky characters he’s created don’t get to fully stretch their legs. The book ends on a cliffhanger which – SPOILER ALERT – sees Jacob and Emma (the fire girl) separated from their friends, which means Book 3 could go two ways: it could pare the story down to their single quest (which at least means the other characters wouldn’t be there to be under-utilised) or it could give some airtime to the rest of the gang, off on their own, which would be hugely, vastly appreciated.
And so, on balance, I hand out four nice red Goodreads stars. For all my moaning, it was gripping as I read it, much as Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children was, and I sped through it at a fair rate of knots. If only for their beautiful design, the series is well worth a look.