Punk Reviews…

Distinct from “Paperback Punk,” these will be reviews of more modern, even new or about to be published books, but most likely still focusing on genre fiction, fantasy and sci-fi primarily.

Ordinary Monsters

By J. M. Miro

Published by Flatiron Books

Available June 7th, 2022

Its 1882 and there’s a man made of smoke hunting two children through London. But the children themselves have their own gifts. The foundling glows blue and can burn or heal with a touch. The mixed-race teen from Natchez can recover from any injury in seconds.

Ordinary Monsters is an historical urban fantasy set in a stylized Victorian period of teal and orange, with perennially cloudy skies and streets overflowing with mud and soot coating every surface. There is everywhere Dickensian poverty and abject, horrifying cruelty abounds. Everyone has a tragic backstory, and it is with this tragedy, and the promise of the fantastic, that J. M. Miro draws you in to the story.

The writer’s influences are not difficult to spot. Characters are introduced, given fine characterization, and then dispensed with brutally; we are living in a post- Game of Thrones world after all. The general ambience and scene description brings to mind the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes films: the palette is mud brown, soot black, glowing blue, and thundercloud gray, with here and there a gaslamp to offer a splash of color. The mysterious children with amazing powers are brought to the Cairndale Institute, a school in remote Scotland, not unlike Hogwarts. But it’s when the story shifts to the school that you realize this is more like the Xavier School for Gifted Children than a place for wizards. Every power, or talent, the children possess comes with a price, not least of which is being set apart from the rest of humanity, like Marvel’s mutants.

All those pieces come together to craft an original, engaging story with solid characters and some neat worldbuilding. The plot is a little muddled, in part because the exposition is delivered through naturalistic dialogue, parceled out throughout the novel, rather than dumped out wholesale. The action is frenetic and well described, but the effects of various powers can seem arbitrary at times. Gun don’t seem to work at all against certain opponents until suddenly they do, for example. But these are only minor annoyances, because the character work is really well done.

Marlowe, the glowing boy, is a good natured kid with a generous heart, despite all the troubles he has seen. Charlie Ovid, the teen with the Wolverine healing factor, has faced all the prejudice the post-Civil War south can throw at him, but still has a hopeful outlook. The two bond quickly but believably, two orphans with strange powers in a strange situation, and this reader was sucked along for the ride. I found myself easily caring about them as individuals, even when the stakes of the narrative wanted me to more vaguely worry about the fate of the world. Which is not as important, really, because Charlie and Marlowe and their friends and allies were well drawn enough as characters already and I was invested enough in them.

There’s a solid mythology to the setting that involves gates to the underworld, bloodlines that reliably produce certain types of talents, a variety of horrible monsters, and a great deal of mystery. The manner in which the world deviates from our own is gradually revealed, bit by bit, as new characters are introduced and new complications arise. The middle sags a little bit as a series of flashbacks occur and there are some Hogwarts Teen Investigations scenes, but overall Ordinary Monsters is a compelling fantasy adventure, fueled by great characters and a number of solid set pieces (including the obligatory battle atop of a runaway steam train).

Ordinary Monsters is the first in a proposed trilogy, but the volume itself is stand alone and tells a complete story. There’s a lot of places these characters and setting can go in the next installments (and perhaps beyond) and I am eager to see how it all turns out.