This was a random pick from the library because the cover caught my eye. I'm glad it did — Hannah Tinti's debut novel is very readable, and superior to most YA fiction, but part of its problem is that the author couldn't seem to quite decide whether this was YA or not. You will see a lot of reviewers comparing it to Dickens and Robert Louis Stevenson, mainly because it's about a hard-luck orphan (missing a hand for as long as he can remember) who embarks upon a fantastic if rather dark and creepy adventure. But other than those superficial similarities, I hardly think Tinti's prose resembles either Dickens or Stevenson. There are occasional literary flourishes and some cleverness, and an awful lot of imagination, but the depth isn't quite there to make this an American classic.
The addition of mad doctors doing bad things with corpses and naked dwarves coming down chimneys gets added comparisons to Stephen King or Mary Shelley. But again — no, not really either of them in style or tone.
Ren's childhood is not quite as hard-luck as Oliver Twist's — the monks of St. Anthony's are stern but not cruel. The yearning of Ren and his friends for a family to adopt them, and their fear of being impressed into the army (the fate of those boys who aren't adopted) is an almost-effective tug at the heartstrings. Ren is a far more believable orphan boy than Harry Potter, and not quite as melodramatic as Oliver Twist.
A con artist named Benjamin Nab shows up with a fantastic tale, claiming that he is Ren's older brother. Ren quickly figures out he's not, but goes along with Nab and his partner and learns the arts of lying, thieving, and "fishing." Like most glib traveling con men, Benjamin Nab's luck runs out and he attracts the attention of more dangerous people. This eventually leads to Ren (of course) discovering the truth about his parentage.
Ren makes a variety of friends, from the hard-of-hearing, eternally-shouting landlady Mrs. Sands to the murderous giant Dolly, and the mousetrap girl known only as "the Harelip." (In fairness, none of the "hat boys" are ever named either.) These sorts of zany characters and a slightly whimsical tone make this an entertaining and imaginative book, but also made me unable to really take it seriously when Tinti tried to shift into dark and creepy mode. It was like reading Peter Pan where you've just seen Peter partying with the Lost Boys and Tiger Lily, and then Captain Hook comes along and actually kills
someone. Oh, is this the part where shit gets real?
(Yeah, I didn't like Hook
But, it's still a good read with likable characters you root for by the end. Hannah Tinti is a promising author who kind of reminds me of Laini Taylor
, except in Taylor's case, I thought her writing was great while her story fell flat, while Hannah Tinti's story was compelling and never lost me, but her writing was lacking a "wow" factor for me.
3.5 stars, which I am rounding up because I'm feeling generous.