*This is a review of an uncorrected proof, and quotes/excerpts may therefore differ from the final copy.
One glance at the ratings I have given books since January tells you that I’m either a stingy reader or 2013 is not my year for good books. I don’t seek out books I know I won’t enjoy, because reading a book I dislike is anything but pleasant. It’s frustrating, and it robs me the experience of getting lost in the wonder of someone’s fantastical creation. I don’t find myself absorbed into a character’s life, devouring pages at rapid pace and oblivious to the world around me. No, I find that I’m painfully aware of my surroundings, and even more aware of the book in front me. I’m aware of the regret I feel and the restlessness nearly bursting out, wanting to finish this story as soon as possible and move on. Preferably, I will go on to meet a better book. A book that I’ll adore. I want to read a book that will have me so entrenched that I won’t realize how swiftly I’m plowing through it.
It had been my hope that Peregrine Harker & the Black Death would be that book: a beacon of dazzling promise over an ocean full of disappointment and flimsy plotlines. Instead, Peregrine Harker is another character I’m happy to forget and have since shoved overboard into murky water. It’s not that Luke Hollands’ story is an especially terrible catastrophe, but it is nothing near what I had hoped it would be. At a surface glance, Peregrine Harker & the Black Death promises nothing short of a light-hearted, adventurous novel where danger threatens to jump out at every turn. When I first discovered Hollands’ book, I swore it to be a likable escapade pinched in good fun. For all I know, that might have been Hollands’ intent when he set out to write Peregrine’s adventure, because it sounds exciting:
It’s the year 1908, and expert tall-tale journalist, Peregrine Harker, finds himself in a squeeze: get to the bottom of the spike in tea prices and report the truth or wave his job goodbye. What ensues, however, is a tall tale of its own, beginning as a simple job that soon takes a risky turn into investigative journalism. It’s a story filled with murder, explosions, hot pursuits, spies, and most of all: betrayal and revenge. When Peregrine is sent to meet with tea trader Sir Magnus Clayton, he instantly—and by accident—becomes mixed up in a mystery that goes beyond the cost of tea. After discovering two dead bodies, it becomes apparent that The Black Death has Peregrine Harker pinned as their new target. Rescued by Clayton’s butler, Mr. Woolf, Peregrine swears to help Clayton demystify the perplexing tea issue. Warned not to trust Clayton, however, the tea trader may not appear to be who he says he is. When Clayton’s leads direct Harker straight into unfriendly territory, who is left to trust when punches and lies creep out from all corners?
The exaggeration over the rising price of tea, I must admit, bothers me. This isn’t any Boston Tea Party, so how ridiculous is it to assume immediate uproar?
“If you were to deny the humble British labourer his morning cup there would be riots on the streets of every major city from here to Rangoon; and, in a few months, I believe that very tragedy is about to happen. There’s trouble brewing and no mistake.”
I chuckled at what I thought was a joke, but Challock’s face remained serious.
“This is no laughing matter, Harker. You see, during the past few weeks, the keen-eyed of us, have been noticing tea prices shooting sky-high. If they continue to rise at this rate it won’t be long before the tea pots of the British Empire are dry.”
I couldn’t help but feel that this is tapping into a British stereotype, inflating the idea that everyone lives for their daily tea. I could equate this to asking, “What will the Americans do now that their beloved Hostess has fallen?!” Oh my Ho-Hos! I am willing to accept that I might be overly critical, but this is merely one of several aspects that I find unbelievable. 1908 or not, how likely is it for a newspaper to hire a fifteen year old journalist—a fibbing one at that—and maintain credibility? Forgive me, because I can’t say I’m familiar with the workforce and cultural norms of London’s early 1900s. For the time being, however, I don’t accept Peregrine’s way of living as realistic.
Because Peregrine Harker & the Black Death is a middle-grade novel, I sense that the author is not just aiming for an action-packed adventure story. This is a book whose roots grow from unlimited imagination that is somewhat based in reality. For all intents and purposes, a silly little novel is perfectly right by me. As a kid who started out reading Amelia Bedelia, Junie B. Jones, and Encyclopedia Brown, and then later on to Harry Potter and Anne of Green Gables, I was a reader who reveled in imagination. I still am, in fact. My childhood was spent getting lost in books and creating stories, sometimes pretending I was a journalist—like Harker—who wrote passionate “Dolphins are friends; not food!” articles. Granted, my feet are now planted in reality, but that doesn’t mean I have forgotten what it’s like to be a ten year old with boundless imagination. I remember how exciting it felt to read books that were just as wild, if not crazier, than my own fancies.
So if you read this review and shake your head at what a pernickety killjoy I am, the lack of plausibility in Peregrine Harker is only part of my problem. (You might groan or roll your eyes at this point, but that’s okay. I can take it.)
Any reader will notice the short chapter lengths instantly. If the writing proves strong and has quality, the length of a chapter—let alone an entire book—doesn’t trouble me. It’s when the writing suffers, and notably so, that I feel frustrated or let down by an author. In particular, Peregrine Harker & the Black Death doesn’t allow readers to experience the story first-hand. Rather than feeling like a participant, Hollands pulls a chair aside and tells you to sit and listen. The reader becomes the listener, not even an observer, of Peregrine’s account.
“So there you go,” said Louisa. “It’s all quite simple really, and if you think about it rationally, it’s very lucky for you I was there.” She was sitting by a roaring fire in my rooms at Broad Street, a steaming mug of cocoa in her hand. We had both thawed a bit, in temperature and emotion. My admiration for her had not just been increased by a change in lighting but rather by the brave tale she had just told me. It went something like this.
I note that the reader is not a witness to anything because the novel consists of Peregrine’s recitation in summarized description. This habit of briefly over-viewing events became a huge problem as I read, because I’m a reader who thrives on falling into details and playing the novel out in my mind. Everything from dialogue to events is largely skimmed over by the main character, which is unfortunate. Most imagery is lost and character conversations turn dull in consequence, and what should be a thrilling story is no more than a lifeless read. I feel that readers are not only deprived of the experience, but that it is difficult make a connection and escape into the story.
The characters present a different problem, bundling my issues of believability and an inability to enjoy the plot. In some way, each character feels solid and present, yet in a limited condition. This has much to do with the writing technique and manner of speech shown in dialogue. While everyone is exhibited with their own individual personalities, I believe Hollands’ mistake is allowing his characters to sound alike in their speech. Smashing pip pip cheerio and a right ho! language bruise the text. I have a difficult time differentiating if this is intended to poke good fun at British prose and lighten the mood or not. Either way, I can’t say I enjoy it, as I find it much too excessive. Even so, I speculate that the target audience might take greater satisfaction out of this than me.
“Well, if it isn’t my dear old pal, Peregrine Harker. How the devil are you, old love?”
I took his hand as briefly as possible, but only for appearances. If Clayton hadn’t been there I probably would have punched the fiend.
“When Clayton told me he was meeting you for a toot, I just couldn’t resist a reunion. I do, however, have to dash, my dear old thing; but it was most pleasant to meet you again, if only briefly.”
My little boat sails onward, still in search of that one story to break this glum reading spell. I realize that Peregrine Harker & the Black Death could not have been that special book for me, which is a shame, but you can’t blame a hopeful reader for trying.
Thank you to Netgalley and Sparkling Books for providing a free copy of Peregrine Harker & the Black Death in exchange for my honest review.