Fiction Reviews

Ordinary Monsters

(2022) J. M. Miro, Bloomsbury, £17.99, hrdbk, 661pp, ISBN978-1-526-65005-4


This hefty Fantasy novel is a little difficult to describe without sounding trite. Although it may sound a little like some other books, it is a book that treads its own path and is epic in scale and depth.

The main focus of the plot is based around two orphans. Young Charlie Ovid has the amazing ability to heal himself from injury rapidly, whilst as a baby the younger Marlowe at times of stress seems to glow blue.

Ordinary Monsters begins with showing us both children before they are tracked down by detectives Frank Coulton and Alice Quicke. Though from different backgrounds – Charlie is a mixed-race child from the Mississippi, whilst Marlowe has spent much of his life in a Dickensian-type London – they become firm friends. They are taken by Frank and Alice to London where they meet the seemingly rather prim Mrs Harrogate to keep them safe before being taken to a special school at Cairndale in Scotland.

At Cairndale the two meet others with special abilities, called Talents. We meet Komako, who can manipulate dust, Oskar who has a flesh giant named Lymenion and a girl nicknamed “Ribs”, who can make herself invisible. Together they discover that Cairndale has many secrets.

Whilst at Cairndale, the group also meet Dr Henry Berghast, whose purpose in bringing them all to the remote house is at first mysterious and unclear. However, we discover that the house is next to an island guarding a glyph, a portal to the world of the dead. Berghast knows that the guardian of the glyph, affectionately named The Spider by the students in the school, is dying, and as a result the barriers between the worlds of the living and the dead are weakening. Berghast believes that only a group with Talents, and particularly Marlowe, can stop this, although it is very dangerous.

At the same time, there are some determined to stop it happening. Jacob Marber, a rogue Talent, has an agenda that involves opening the portal and stopping the group. With his litch servant, Walter Laster, he is determined to catch Marlowe and stop the portal being closed. Again, we find as we read through Marber’s backstory that the situation is complicated. The battle at the end is quite epic.

In short, this is a story where Charles Dickens-type characters meets the X-Men, a combination that sounds odd but actually works rather well here. This is because time is spent building up the characters and their Victorian world, so that what may seem odd outside the context of the novel seems perfectly acceptable within it.

It is deeply, darkly Gothic in tone, which helps create an atmospheric setting appropriate for the plot. There’s lots of backstory about Charlie and Marlowe, but also about their friends and protectors, as well as how the baddies Jacob and Walter became villains. What was interesting for me here was that the characters, both good and bad, are not stereotypical. They are nuanced, complex and complicated.

This grim world is also genuinely filled with horrifying moments. There are hints at rape and there is violence throughout. The killings are rather violent and bloody, which means that despite this sounding like an ideal book for Harry Potter enthusiasts, it may be a little too brutal for younger fans.

What worked best for me was the language used to develop this story, which was literate and intelligent. Though the story may rework tropes we have seen before, the voice here is fresh. However, as Miro’s Gaslight (2016) was long-listed for the Scotioa Giller Prize and his poetry has won him the Gerald Lampert Award and the ReLit Award, this may not be a surprise. The descriptions of the worlds are particularly vivid, whether wallowing in the grime of Victorian sewers or the ethereal world of the dead.

Whilst the book is impressively detailed - it reminded me of Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Norrell and Mr Strange in that regard - the downside of this is that the book, as you might expect in a nearly-700 page novel, does vary and some may find the middle part of the book a little slower than they would like, but for me it was all about building up tension and developing the characters up to the story's conclusion.

Ordinary Monsters is an impressively detailed and well-thought-out novel, heavy in atmosphere and deep in plot that I suspect will repay rereading. I felt that this is a book to take your time with and savour all of the details and subtleties within. Although there is some closure by the end, it is noticeable that Ordinary Monsters is the first book in a trilogy and therefore the book ends with some elements unresolved. Personally, though, I look forward to the next one with interest.

Mark Yon


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