In 1872, a pair of detectives (Alice Quicke and Mr. Coulton) are searching the world for Talents – children with extraordinary powers. They take their foundlings back to the Cairndale Institute, a school and home for these ordinary monsters. There, the children learn how to use and control their unique abilities, along with all the other basic subjects any child would learn.
When the story opens, there are two specific children for whom the pair are searching. Marlowe is a young boy born under tragic circumstances. His skin sometimes glows blue and he can heal or melt others. Unbeknownst to him initially, there is some kind of smoke monster stalking him. Charlie Ovid, a teenage Black boy living in Mississippi, heals instantaneously, though he still feels all the pain inflicted upon him.
The Cairndale employees soon find their charges, but what should be a relatively straightforward task of installing the boys in their new home is anything but. There’s the smoke monster, lichts, and other dark forces seeking Cairndale’s secrets. It’s up to Alice, Coulton, Charlie, Marlowe, and a handful of other Talents to disrupt their plans, while facing their own darkness as well.
Ordinary Monsters is a huge book, which is fitting for a tale that travels between Europe, the United States, and Japan. Overall, I liked all the world building and didn’t notice the length much. There was one section with Charlie that I felt didn’t quite fit though. It seemed like it was setting up something else or that instead of simply getting lost in the streets of London, Charlie accidentally wandered out of his book and into one of Dickens’ before finding his way back. It didn’t destroy the narrative or anything and there were still some connections to the larger story, but it just seemed a bit out of place.
One of the things that really struck me about this book was how many times things seemed impossible or hopeless, but the characters chose to keep going or keep fighting anyway. It’s a good reminder for all of us that sometimes we just have to keep going through, no matter how pointless it seems. And maybe we won’t “win” or change what already happened, but there’s still a chance that we can alter the future enough that something good can come from it later.
I also really liked the historical setting. It felt very realistic, even with the magic sprinkled all around the world. Yet again, the Pinkertons popped up, but like in The Devil’s Revolver, they’re still a bunch of bastards. Again, realistic. Alice is definitely my favorite character, both for her ability to get the job done and her annoyance with the restrictions society places on her. In some ways, she reminded me of Sara Howard from The Alienist (another book I greatly enjoyed).
From what I’ve seen, it sounds like Ordinary Monsters is the first of a series. While I’ll check out any sequels, I thought this worked well as a stand-alone novel. It took me a bit before I got to a point where I didn’t want to stop reading. Once that hit, I was stuck in my usual tug-of-war between wanting to hurry through to see what happens next and not wanting it to end.
So if you’re looking for a thick book with magical kids, Victorian settings, some globe-trotting mysteries, and humor mixed with some light horror, Ordinary Monsters may be for you!