The mysterious Mr. Socrates rescues Modo, a child in a traveling freak show. Modo is a hunchback with an amazing ability to transform his appearance, and Mr. Socrates raises him in isolation as an agent for the Permanent Association, a spy agency behind Brittania's efforts to rule the empire. At 14, Modo is left on the streets of London to fend for himself. When he encounters Octavia Milkweed, another Association agent, the two uncover a plot by the Clockword Guild behind the murders of important men. Furthermore, a mad scientist is turning orphan children into automatons to further the goals of the Guild. Modo and Octavia journey deep into the tunnels under London and discover a terrifying plot against the British government. It's up to them to save their country.
Although others have classified this book as young adult, I would consider it to be for a younger audience than that. I would recommend it for tweens and young teens. I’m rating it three stars, but that’s for the reading experience from my current vantage point as an adult. I think that if I’d read it at the right age, I would definitely have rated it at four stars.
The story is an interesting mix of steampunk elements and allusions to classic literature. The main character, Modo (the hunchback of the title) harks back to Quasimodo of Victor Hugo and Modo’s partner in crime, Octavia Milkweed, reminds me obliquely of La Esmeralda in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Like Quasimodo & Esmeralda, Modo becomes enamoured with Octavia. Unlike Quasimodo, Modo has a paranormal ability to change his appearance for limited amounts of time. Because of his crush on Octavia, he spends quite a bit of time & effort to avoid being seen by her in his natural state—this is obviously a state of affairs that will progress in future volumes.
The story’s villain, Dr. Hyde, has some roots in Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, without the virtuous Jekyl state. He performs many horrible experiments on both adults and children, but nothing vivid enough to leave younger readers with nightmares, unless they are ultra-sensitive. The bolts that he inserts in his experimental subjects reminded me strongly of the popular-culture version of Frankenstein’s monster.
Unlike so many of these alternate history Victorian stories, this one seems to be aimed more at boys than at girls, although I think any girl of the right age would definitely identify with Octavia. But with Modo as the narrator of the tale, the appeal to boys is greater. Since I think that reading for young men is a neglected demographic, I am glad to know about this fun, engaging series.
The author, Arthur Slade, will be attending the When Words Collide conference this August (2018) and I am glad that I read one of his books before hearing him speak there.