Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
Ransom Riggs went to film school, made some award-winning short films, and did travel writing and photography before he published Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, his first novel. This young adult fantasy novel uses a number of strange old photographs Riggs either found or borrowed from several collections, and the photos are interspersed with the text. It’s an interesting presentation that adds a lot to the reading experience.
The book has already been optioned by Twentieth Century Fox, and no wonder, since is it the most movie-ready book I’ve read in recent memory.
Jacob Portman grew up hearing stories from his grandfather about a place on a Welsh island. Grandfather Abe was sent there from Poland as a child during World War II. Abe regales Jake with tales of children who can float, a guardian who is a “bird that smokes a pipe,” and, more seriously, monsters with night-black eyes and razor-sharp tentacles for tongues. As he grows older, Jake becomes disillusioned about these wild tales, until his father explains that Abe’s parents sent him away from the Nazis. The rest of the family was killed. Abe’s “monsters” seem to have an historical genesis. Jake’s bond with his grandfather never weakens, until, shockingly, Abe is murdered by a creature that only Jake can see.
Abe’s mysterious last words send Jake, with his father tagging along, to Wales, to find Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. Jake has been having nightmares since he saw the thing that killed his grandfather, and he hopes the island will solve some of the mysteries. What he finds are more mysteries. At the end, Jake has the answers to the most serious riddles of his grandfather’s life. These answers force Jake to make an important decision about his own.
The first third of this book is clever, mysterious and strange, with the old photos — many of them faked “wonders” such as a levitating girl, a “child in a bottle” and a floating baby — generating an extra dimension of interest. When Jake finds the island and Miss Peregrine’s house, the book becomes, momentarily, deeply emotional as he deals again with the loss of his grandfather.
Unfortunately, after that things become predictable. The book relies on time travel conventions and the idea that all adults, even if magical, are incompetent or narrow-minded. I had trouble understanding certain things that we are expected to believe, such as letters to and from Abe, which were never adequately explained if I understood the time travel piece correctly. Things happen for the convenience of the plot, not because they have been planted and developed in the text.
Where the book is at its best is the visual descriptions. Action sequences sizzle and sparkle with energy. For instance, roaming through the ruined old house, Jacob finds a trunk. He can’t break the lock, so he decides to break the trunk instead, by throwing it down the stairs.
It hesitated for a moment, wobbling there on the edge of oblivion, and then pitched decisively forward and fell, tumbling end over end in beautiful balletic slow-motion. There came a tremendous echoing crash that seemed to rattle the whole house as a plume of dust shot up at me from below and I had to cover my face and retreat down the hall until it cleared. A minute later I came back and peeked over the landing and saw, not the pile of smashed wood I had so hoped for, but a jagged trunk-shaped hole in the floorboards. It had fallen straight through into the basement.
I don’t know if a sixteen year old raised in Florida would use the word “balletic,” but I can see that trunk cart-wheeling down those stairs.
Riggs has a good ear for dialogue, as this exchange between Jake and his only Florida friend Ricky demonstrates:
“Hell I am. Why?”
“Because you’re six-five and have green hair and my grandfather doesn’t know you and owns lots of guns.”
Jake is believable as a character, and so is his grandfather Abe, but after that, characterization gets weak. Many YA novels have non-existent parents, or parents who are incompetent, and Riggs has chosen the latter. In fact, Jake’s folks are so stereotypical that they don’t need names, just titles. His mother Comes From Money. Dad is a Pathetic Loser. This last choice is a real missed opportunity, since the Pathetic Loser is the link between Jake and his grandfather.
By the second half of the book, I was finding the photos which had held so much magic at the beginning to be distracting and irritating. Riggs creates at least one character, Victor, who serves no purpose to the story, just to match a photograph. I think that Riggs clings to the pictures, rather than letting the story take wing — pun intended — on its own.
The action sequences carry the book along to a mostly convincing climax that sets the reader up for the next book in the series, but it’s undercut by an implausible scene with Jake and his father.
It’s clear that Riggs has a series in mind. I hope that he will use it to develop some of the characters he has introduced here, and to fill in some of the gaps in his world-building.
A word about the book itself: Quirk Books did full justice to the photographic concept. From a great cover to a nice presentation of the photos, the physical book replicates Jake’s experience and amplifies the original weirdness of the story. I have a theory that the popularity of e-readers is pushing paper book publishers to get creative and capitalize on the sensuous experience of reading — and it pays off here.
If there is one genre in young adult fiction that has been egregiously overdone at this point, it’s… well, actually, can’t tell a lie, it’s paranormal romance. But a close runner-up is the “Teens with Powers” genre that’s rocketed to prominence in recent years, particularly after a certain book series involving young wizards and their magical school. The formula is generally much the same: there’s a secret society of magic-users who organize themselves in some sort of refuge from a dangerous world where they have an equally magical enemy. The inevitably teenage or tweenage protagonists are at first under pressure to simply conform and leave the problems to the adults, but must soon take matters into their own hands to indulge teenage hormones and face their nemeses in glorious magical combat. This isn’t to say it’s a bad formula (indeed, many authors are still doing interesting things with the genre, a notable recent addition being Lev Grossman’s The Magicians). The issue is that the formula is so recognizable at this point that it’s hard to get by with just plunking out another in the same vein. One does have to experiment and redefine. There was certainly some effort on that front in Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, but I just worry that it might not have been quite enough.
The plot follows the same basic strokes as most of its breed. Our protagonist is a covertly witty, relatively attractive teenage boy who nonetheless isn’t great at school and feels like an outsider with other people his own age. After the death of his grandfather, however, he uncovers a secret society living on the fringes of the world — a society with which he immediately feels a greater connection than any he has known before. For the first time in his life, he has found his Neverland, a world where he is valued and powerful, where he has friends his age and the elders are wise counselors rather than out-of-touch clods. Most importantly (seeing as this is a teen book), a world where he has a girlfriend. But can this idyllic world last, or is the shadow on the horizon approaching more swiftly than anyone could have foreseen?
Ransom Riggs is a good writer, technically speaking, and the book moves well. I found the prose very impressive, particularly in the early sections of the novel; and the dialogue is on the whole quite well done. The voices are distinct, and Riggs easily handles different speech patterns for characters of various nationalities and time periods. The characterization, while a little disappointingly clichéd in some instances (the father was a bit typical and Emma the love interest came off a bit tsundere at times), is on the whole a step above many similar works. Riggs’ tone is suitable for his subject matter, his themes are well-presented, his presentation of nostalgia and loss is often rather poignant, and on the whole it’s a very well-done book.
There are some flaws, of course, even without touching upon the dark thunderheads circling over Mount Intertexuality (we’ll get to the “derivative” thing in a second, promise). One of the book’s main “hooks” — which are part of what’s supposed to set it apart, I think — is the use of vintage photographs throughout to support the narrative. While I found the pictures charming enough in the beginning, toward the end (when the mystery had been more or less explained) I found myself flipping past them without really looking at them, and even getting a little irritated at the slight contrivances necessary to implant them in the story. This was especially true as they didn’t seem to add any information and inevitably occurred after Jacob had described them. I think that the pictures might be more effective if they were to occur a little before they turn up in the narrative — that way they’re tantalizing hints and the reader has no opportunity to imagine something more dynamic. Anyway, Riggs also begins to have some problems with pacing toward the end of the story, and the final narrative twists and turns come in a workmanlike flurry of back-and-forth motion that — lacking the lushness of some of the earlier sections — begins to show the bones lurking behind the flesh of the narrative (so to speak).
Finally, while the plot is decent, it’s not particularly riveting. The build-up in America is very effective and eerie, but the eventual resolution is by contrast somewhat ho-hum. It’s rather like the photographs, actually: a lot of hoopla for something relatively ordinary. The reader is led to expect something truly creepy — with a protagonist tailor-made for eerier, more cerebral adventure, less an action-hero-in-training like Percy Jackson or Maximum Ride and more a dreamy introvert like Will Stanton — but then the whole thing turns out to be more or less just another “stop the bad guys” action-fantasy.
Which brings us to Mount Intertextuality, and those ponderous storm clouds. See, I’ll admit something: I have no problem at all with action-fantasy. I like Conan the Barbarian. I like Harry Dresden. I like Spider-Man. I l… well, I can sort of endure Druss the Legend. I’m not saying action-fantasy is a lesser form of fiction, but it’s not enough just to be action-fantasy, even if you’re an action-fantasy dressing yourself up in every neo-gothic doodad you can slap on over your chain-mail and laser visor. You’ve got to do something with it to excite your audience, and that’s no mean task in a world where your target audience grew up on Avatar: The Last Airbender.
For instance, let’s experiment for a moment. Imagine that when Jacob goes questing, he does not discover a ramshackle house called Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children. No no. What he instead discovers is Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Doesn’t that seem like it would be more fun? I mean, you’d barely have to change anything. Kids with powers, check. Hated and feared, check. Isolation, check. Wise but perhaps impractical mentor, check. Old allies turned to monsters, checkity-doo-dah, checkity-ay, my oh my what a checkity day. But you’d also have Wolverine. Weapon X and cans of beer and “Hey Bub”s and snikts and alarming hirsutism. And you’d have Cyclops! And Jean Grey (maybe — I’m not sure if she’s dead this week)! And Beast! In short, you’d have action heroes in your action fantasy. Chekhov’s Gun: if it’s there, it must be fired. And if super powers are there, they must be used to kick ass and take names.
Now I understand that this is merely the first book in a series (aren’t they all?), and it’s likely that Riggs will develop his premise further in the following novels. But taking this one by itself, it feels oddly undercooked as both action fantasy and spooky mystery. I think it starts out as the latter and eventually settles for the former, but by that time doesn’t have space to do the thing properly. The mystery (barring the inevitable eleventh-hour twist) is over, and our only real incentive to read on is seeing more action-fantasy featuring our group of Peculiars (none of whom had room to demonstrate any particularly awe-inspiring super-powering) fighting their arch-nemeses (who don’t seem to have much in the way of super-powers).
On the whole, it’s a fun little story and I am all admiration for Riggs’ technical skills as an author, but the storyline leaves me a little cold, particularly in light of everything that has come before. That may not be fair, but it is likely unavoidable. This book started out with a lot of promise, but by the conclusion it was a fairly typical YA action romp, just somewhat underdeveloped due to all the time spent pretending to be something else. This is the era of action-fantasy. We need to rise above and beyond, especially playing it this close to the usual tropes. Now, does that mean you won’t enjoy it, oh terrifically pragmatic reader tuning in at the end simply to hear the final verdict? It does not. You might very well enjoy it. Heck, I kind of enjoyed it. I just see a lot of potential here, and I think that potential could be met with a little more work. Right now, this is just another series, albeit one all dolled up with photographs and imagery that often actually outdoes the photos. With a bit of work on the plot, though, it could be something big.
True story: I’ve always liked to draw, and when I was a kid I loved the party game where people draws a random scribble on a piece of paper, and then you pass your scribble to someone else and they have to create a drawing based on your scribble. I totally ruled at this game, and am still willing to take on all comers.
So, this book reminds me quite a bit of that game. The author found some bizarre vintage photos, mostly old circus pictures or early experiments in trick photography, and decided to concoct a fantastical story around these photos, about children with strange powers and the evil people and creatures who want to take advantage of those powers. Also: time travel! Unfortunately it was all a lot more tedious than it might sound. The storyline and the writing struck me as very average, other than the vintage picture gimmick. And I didn’t care for the unresolved ending that begs you to buy the sequel. I have no particular interest in reading the sequel.
My advice is, save your money. The photos are far more interesting than the story.
Two and a half stars. Middle graders may like it, though.
You can’t deny that Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children has been packaged well. And I mean literally packaged well. The cover bears the picture of a deliciously weird girl, floating a foot above the ground. The book itself is printed on thick, high-quality photographic paper, and a flick through will quickly reveal it’s interspersed with collections of old, grainy photographs of various oddities and peculiar children. It’s heavy and glossy and feels like a relic in and of itself — and with a price tag of $20 you better hope they’ve shelled out on making it swanky.
Jacob Portman is a sixteen year-old boy who is disillusioned with life. We open, rather comically, with him building a replica Empire State building out of adult nappies in the chain of pharmaceutical stores he’s going to inherit from his parents. The issue is, Jacob doesn’t want to inherit the stores, or the droll corporate life that goes with them. But (as we’d expect) something is about to happen that irreversibly shakes up Jacob’s life.
After a string of erratic phone calls from his aging grandfather, Jacob is sent round to check that he’s okay. To his horror, he finds his grandfather brutally murdered — by wild dogs, so the authorities conclude. His grandfather’s last words to Jacob are a jumbled riddle of instructions, but Jacob eventually realises his grandfather wants him to visit the site of his childhood orphanage — on a remote island in Wales.
Cue rainy and eccentric Britain. Jacob finds himself in the ‘piss hole’ (Priest’s Hole in a Welsh accent, apparently), an old pub on the island on which his grandfather grew up. The islanders are very reluctant to talk about the orphanage, and when Jacob goes to investigate, he realises why. It is the epitome of a haunted mansion — scarred by bombs from the war, abandoned and festering. Yet when Jacob enters, he discovers the existence of the Peculiar Children — a bunch of supernatural kids raised under the (literal) wing of Miss Peregrine (who, FYI, can transform into a falcon).
Up until this point, the story has been charming and eerie, if a little unconvincing. The photographs have proved a spooky and peculiar visual aid, and Jacob’s voice is distinct and witty. But from here on in, I kind of lost the thread a little bit. For a start, the photos’ inclusion in the plot was far too contrived to be convincing. The author, Ransom Riggs (coolest name ever), was a collector of photographs and had originally intended to publish a picture book of his collection, until his editor told him to try and fit a story to the photographs. And the effort of twisting the plot to fit the images was quite painful to behold. It felt jarring and unconvincing at the best of times, and the result was flat characters that I simply stopped caring about.
Jacob was meant to be psychologically scarred after witnessing the death of his grandfather, but even that didn’t seem to remain constant. His attentions were often diverted by the charming Emma, a girl who can manipulate fire and who also happened to be the paramour of his dead grandfather. Weird much? While the love story that blossoms between them is endearing, it was far from convincing.
A neat twist at the end of the novel would’ve been a game changer if it wasn’t so obviously coming. The separate parts of the novel all work well: the concept is compelling, the photographs are peculiar and unnatural and add an eerie, visual element, but together they don’t quite mesh. A good read for its novelty but you’ll think twice about picking up the sequel — especially if its price tag looks anything like that of the first instalment.
Tim — you were much kinder to this book than I was. Like you, I really liked the first third, in Florida. I thought there was no excuse at all for the character of the father, and the book was predictable from the point they go to England. I loved the idea of the photos but didn’t think he used them well enough. Still, we all know I’m a hard grader, and he did have some interesting ideas here. I think you teased out both the best and worst of Miss Peregrine and her home.
Thanks, Marion! I actually went back and forth a bit on this book, and in the end I found it difficult to express the conflicting feelings I had on it. Glad I at least came across semi-coherently.
I loved the photographs and the physical qualities of the book, which you covered so well in your opening paragraph. I had the same reaction to the second half of the book that you did. I think you’re right; the photographs, as cool as they are, tripped him up.
He was supposed to be writing a sequel, wasn’t he? It would be interesting to see what he could do when he hasn’t boxed himself in.
Yes, the sequel is Hollow City: https://fantasyliterature.com/fantasy-author/riggsransom/
The criticisms you share, Rachael, are much the same as what I’ve heard from other readers. Was the first book interesting enough that you’ll read the sequel, perhaps to see if Riggs ironed out any of the problems he had in Miss Peregrine’s?