Alistair Grim’s Odditorium, by Gregory Funaro, is a charming middle grade fantasy that reminds me of Roald Dahl’s classic James and the Giant Peach, but with a Victorian steampunk flavor. Replace the giant peach with a large, bizarrely-shaped mansion with strange powers and even stranger inhabitants. Add one intrepid twelve year old (“or thereabouts”) runaway chimney sweep named Grubb, and a doughty and stubborn magical pocket watch named McClintock with the heart of a Scottish warrior, along with assorted fairies (good and evil) and other magical beings, and you’ve got a great adventure for the younger set.
Grubb (no other name) is a young “chummy” or chimney sweep’s assistant, living in London in the 1800s. He doesn’t know who his parents were; he was left on the doorstep of a childless couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smears, as a baby. Mrs. Smears believes Grubb was left for her by the Yellow Fairy and loves him intensely. Mr. Smears accepts him only because of pressure from his wife, and in the hope that Grubb will prove to be a useful apprentice to him when Grubb gets older. Which Grubb does: Mrs. Smears dies when Grubb is about six years old, and Mr. Smears promptly puts him to work doing all of the actual chimney cleaning, while Mr. Smears sits below and barks orders at him. Grubb is miserable, but terrified of being sent to the workhouse for the poor.
When Grubb is about twelve, matters come to a head when some young bullies chase him around an inn where he is cleaning chimneys, intent on beating him up. In terror, Grubb hides in the trunk of a guest at the inn. Before he knows what’s happening, the trunk — which belongs to Mr. Grim — is loaded into a horse-drawn coach and whisks Grubb away to a new life in Mr. Grim’s fantastical mansion, the eponymous Odditorium. Mechanical samurai warriors protect the mansion, lights and objects glow with an eerie blue light, brooms sweep the floor by themselves, fairies play mischievous tricks.
It’s an incredible, magical place, and Grubb is delighted when the intimidating Mr. Grim invites him to stay. More adventures await Grubb — including dangerous ones, as the evil Black Fairy and his necromancer lord, Prince Nightshade, seek to defeat Alistair Grim and steal his magical sources for their own nefarious purposes. Grubb will need all his brains and luck, and the help of some friends, to escape their clutches and protect the Odditorium and those who call it home.
Funaro shows an impressive amount of imagination and does a solid job building a world where magic exists in Victorian-era England. The travails of Grubb’s life as a young chimney were well fleshed out, making him a sympathetic main character. As he explores this strange and wondrous new world and finds both friends and enemies, his determination and his sense of honor are endearing, and also make him a good role model for young readers.
The magical scheme in Alistair Grim’s Odditorium is a little on the simplistic side. For example, blue, red and yellow represent different types of magic, and when combined (for example, when red and blue magic combine to make purple) can gain additional power. While this magical scheme didn’t necessarily impress me, I think younger readers will enjoy it. Grubb’s series of fantastical adventures and the never-ending magical wonders of the Odditorium are a good bet to enthrall readers in elementary and middle grade age range.
Alistair Grim’s Odditorium kept my interest reasonably well, but was a bit juvenile for my adult taste. Some middle grade books are so delightfully magical that, even as an adult, they suck me into their world, but those books that transcend their age category are relatively few for me. Still, I do think young readers who like adventurous fantasies will love this book, so my rating reflects my belief in how well its intended audience will like it. This is the first book in Funaro’s ODDITORIUM series. A sequel, Alistair Grim’s Odd Aquaticum, is due to be published in January 2016.
Here’s an additional review written by my thirteen-year old son, to whom I gave this book after I finished it:
Alistair Grim’s Odditorium is an extremely well written book, with many twists and turns and very good combat scenes. The plotline of the book has a depth that not very many books have. The series could go anywhere at this point. I’d like to rate this book at 4.5 stars, tying with Rick Riordan‘s books, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, and the MICHAEL VEY series by Richard Paul Evans.
— So there you have it, straight from a middle grader who’s a connoisseur of YA fantasy! The two of us are definitely interested in reading the second book.