Ordinary Monsters
J.M. Miro

You’re off the edge of the map, mate. Here there be spoilers.

Fuck Jacob Marber. I have other thoughts, but I feel like that’s going to be my theme for this review, because that dude can go drown. It was originally going to be justice for Brynt, whose fate enrages me, but then I realized that my need to hate Jacob vastly outstrips my need to be angry about Brynt.

Ordinary Monsters is the first installment of the Talents trilogy, a sprawling tale that slips easily from Victorian England to just-barely-post-slavery Mississippi to Scotland to Meiji-era Tokyo without missing a beat. It is told in alternating chapters by several different characters, following them first as they make their way to the Cairndale Institute, a shelter for magical people, and then as they begin to uncover the unwholesome plans laid by the institute’s current owner. In this world, some children are born with a specific magical ability, such as the ability to spontaneously heal from almost any injury, and these children and their abilities are referred to as “talents.” While talents are not believed to be hereditary, it has been known to happen, little though Dr. Berghast – fallen talent and owner of the institute – may want to admit it. Cairndale itself is just outside Edinburgh and acts as both a refuge for adult talents and a boarding school for talented children; and it also harbors an orsine, a gateway between the spirit world and the human world, which is guarded by an ancient talent called a glyphic. Its stated mission is to create a safe place where talents can live without fear of discovery, and, to this end, it has employed a number of agents to track down talented children. These children are then brought to London to be assessed by Mrs. Harrogate, the manager of the Cairndale program, and, if she finds them suitable, they are sent to Scotland, where they are taught to control their powers. The institute’s motives seem altruistic at first, but over time they become increasingly sinister, especially with the disappearances of a number of people who lost their talents as they grew older.

At the center of this plot are new arrivals Charlie Ovid and Marlowe – Marlowe by design, Charlie by sheer happenstance. Charlie is a sixteen-year-old haelan, a talent whose body heals itself instantaneously. He was convicted of murder following the accidental death of a white man and was supposed to be executed, but, since he can’t die, has spent the time since his botched execution in a Mississippi prison, whose guards torture him for their own amusement. His torment finally ends when he is sprung from prison by Cairndale agents Alice Quicke and Frank Coulton. Coulton escorts him to London without incident and introduces him to Mrs. Harrogate, but he is traumatized anew when he is attacked by Walter Laster, an opium-addicted sentient corpse (“litch”) who was supposed to be carefully contained but wasn’t really. After the attack, Walter is recaptured and loaded aboard the train to Scotland along with Charlie and the rest of his party, but – to absolutely nobody’s surprise but Mrs. Harrogate’s – gets loose again during the ride.

Meanwhile, Alice goes to Illinois alone in search of Marlowe, an eight-year-old orphan currently working in a traveling circus. She extracts him from the circus, in the process separating him from his guardian, Brynt, and takes him to New York, from where she intends to catch the next ship to England. This brings them into direct conflict with Cairndale’s biggest headache, more generally known as Jacob Marber. Jacob is an adult talent with the power to manipulate dust (“dustworker”), who was raised by and then worked for the institute until he went missing nine years ago. It was later discovered that he was seduced by a drughr, a monstrous being who gains strength by feeding on talents, and, though it’s not always clear what makes him tick, his intentions are generally assumed to be murderous. Thus, he introduces himself to Marlowe by first stalking him and then attempting to kill Alice, and then – when they finally make it across the Atlantic – by attacking the train that is supposed to be carrying them to Scotland. During the battle that follows, Jacob kills Coulton, while Walter almost kills Mrs. Harrogate. Alice and the kids are unexpectedly given some breathing room when Brynt catches up with them, but they lose her again when she sacrifices herself in an attempt to kill Walter, and they only get away when a severely wounded Mrs. Harrogate manages to separate their train car from Jacob’s.

In spite of Jacob’s interference, Charlie and Marlowe make it to Cairndale in one piece. Here they befriend other young talents: Komako Onoe, a half-Japanese dustworker recruited from Tokyo; Eleanor “Ribs” Ribbon, who can make herself invisible, and who recruited herself; and Oskar Czekowisz, whose talent takes the form of a sort of cross between a familiar and a golem, which he constructs out of raw meat. Yet even this does not lead to anything even remotely resembling peace: Komako is suspicious of the institute, and she and her friends are in the middle of an investigation into the disappearances of people who have lost their talents. (The answer is somehow both better and worse than they thought.) Charlie and Marlowe also meet Dr. Berghast, who asks the boys to travel through the orsine and into the spirit world to retrieve an important artifact. While the kids are occupied, Alice and Mrs. Harrogate return to London in search of Jacob, and are dismayed to find that he has turned Coulton into a litch. They succeed in wounding him with a many-legged catlike beast called a keywrasse, but are unable to kill him before he escapes into the spirit world and kidnaps Marlowe.

The situation becomes far worse when Jacob returns to the human world and attacks Cairndale, while Walter gets loose yet again and kills the glyphic. The only bright side is that the glyphic succeeds in killing Walter before dying; otherwise this totally sucks, and was probably preventable. Fortunately, however, Marlowe has unprecedented powers, which enable him to escape Jacob’s bonds and return on his own. At this point he learns that he is more powerful than the average talent because he is the son of the drughr, and that Dr. Berghast intends to use him to lure the drughr into the open, where he will take her power to compensate for the loss of his own talent. While the orsine splits open and the spirit dead pour into the human world, Dr. Berghast begins to make good on his threats. It looks like he might succeed, even with Charlie’s intervention, until a mortally wounded Mrs. Harrogate pushes him through the orsine. The drughr drags him away, and Marlowe – after an emotional goodbye – goes into the spirit world to close the orsine, telling Charlie to find a way to bring him back to the human world.

Elsewhere in the institute, Jacob is still a problem: Alice and the kids and the keywrasse have been battling him non-stop, but he just won’t. Fucking. Die. They finally get a bit of a break when Coulton regains enough consciousness to beg Alice to kill him, and then when Jacob is seemingly buried under a ton of collapsed rock, but this reprieve doesn’t even last ten minutes before Jacob comes back again. The fed-up keywrasse seizes him by the head and drags him into the loch next door to the institute, which seems to be the end of it. Is it the real end, or is that just wishful thinking on all our parts? I don’t know. I don’t even know what to say anymore. Whatever the case, Alice and the kids take advantage of his absence to flee to London, inadvertently leaving Charlie behind. In the aftermath of Jacob’s attack, Charlie realizes that Dr. Berghast stole his talent before being dragged into the spirit world, and that he can no longer heal himself. The only other apparent survivor is Miss Davenshaw, one of the institute’s teachers, and the pair of them make their way back to Mrs. Harrogate’s house, where Alice and the others eventually catch up with them. The book ends with them agreeing to go after Marlowe, who is theoretically still accessible through a second orsine documented in Dr. Berghast’s journal.

I really have no idea how I feel about this book. A lot happens, but very little of it has stuck with me. I had to reread the last few pages to remind myself what the hell even happened at the end, because it all slipped out of my mind like water off a duck. A few things, however, stand out. My strongest thought is that when the world starts going to shit, I want Alice on my side. She’s great. I don’t really like that Coulton gets a pass as a “good man” when he has literally sat on his hands and let other men sexually harass Alice, but, well, it’s the 1800s, and I’d be more upset if Alice weren’t 100% capable of taking care of those assholes by herself. She’s strong, smart, and resourceful, and, though she initially doesn’t get too invested in the kids she recruits, she finds herself unwillingly attached to Marlowe and Charlie. Their relationships start out somewhat awkwardly, but both boys rely on her more than she realizes at first, and they form a powerful familial bond that keeps them coming back to each other again and again. I really feel bad for Marlowe, an affectionate child who gets attached easily and seems to lose every parental figure who comes his way – I am particularly sore about the loss of Brynt, whom he sees for a bare second before she jumps off a moving train – but I’m hoping that both he and Charlie will get to stay with Alice for a decently long time. If Alice gets taken away from them anytime between now and the end of the third book, I will be having words with this series.

That is, of course, assuming I read the rest of the series, which might not happen because the writing style is somewhat rambly and childish. This could have been used to good effect if it had been confined to the chapters narrated by actual children, but it is not. The style is uniform throughout the entire book, leaving very little to distinguish between the characters’ voices. The most distinct voice belongs to Komako, but only because of the unnecessary Japanese words sprinkled through her chapters. I’ve said it before with The Stardust Thief, and I’ll say it again, as many times as it takes: there is no point in using non-English words when the language spoken can be assumed to be something other than English. Does it add to the vibes? Sure, up to a point. But does it actually do anything useful? No. This kind of thing annoys the shit out of me when it’s so obvious that the author just Google Translated a bunch of words and didn’t want that time to go to waste. Don’t tell me it’s the month of hazuki, just fucking say “August.” (Also pretty sure that should be a proper noun, but whatever.) If Komako is going to be addressed as “girl” by a character who is speaking entirely in Japanese, there’s no point in having that character say “on’nanoko” instead of “girl.” I think it’s also worth pointing out that this was only done in the chapters set in Japan. The little blurb set in Vienna, however brief, was not sprinkled with German words. I am willing to believe that this was not intentional, but it does give me the impression that Komako was only included for the sake of adding a palatable dash of exoticism to a story and cast that are otherwise fairly homogeneous. The point, of course, is that talents can be found in every country in the world, but she is one of only three Asian talents in the entire book, and the other two don’t say a word and are eaten by the drughr shortly after being introduced.

I am also annoyed with Mrs. Harrogate and her mind-bogglingly careless approach to litch-related security, which is so lax that it almost beggars belief. Mrs. Harrogate is not stupid and she is not at all ignorant of the dangers presented by a litch, and yet she never seems to learn that you don’t fucking turn your back on Walter. His every escape is enabled by Mrs. Harrogate’s absolute refusal to acknowledge that her security measures are anything other than perfect. She spends so much time telling everyone else that Walter is secure when we all know he’s taking advantage of her carelessness to chew through his bonds. Later, Dr. Berghast fails to learn from her example, and he makes the same goddamn mistake, thus indirectly allowing the glyphic’s death. I’m sorry, but this really pisses me off. It happens so often that it might almost feel like a recurring joke if the consequences weren’t so lethal, but even so I can’t take it seriously because it really just makes me picture that SpongeBob episode where the Tattletale Strangler got away from the cops with comical ease. You don’t take your eyes off Walter for a second, you don’t just leave him to his own devices and assume that ropes and handcuffs are enough to keep him quiet. How fucking hard is this? While we’re at it, how the hell do these things actually die? How is Alice able to kill Coulton with a single bullet, while Mrs. Harrogate fires multiple rounds directly into Walter’s chest without ever actually killing him? Why does it feel so much like a litch can only die when it happens to be convenient to the plot?

In the end, though, all of this pales in comparison to the primary reason I knocked two stars off this book. Jacob is one of the most annoying characters I’ve met this year. He is a textbook example of a character who needs to just fucking die already, but who somehow keeps coming back again and again and again and again. He’s not funny or witty or even vaguely relatable. His role is literally to drift around in a cloud of smoke, talk in riddles, kill people, and be sad. We get his whole story, but I have zero sympathy after 672 pages of him not fucking dying, and I also have no faith that he is actually dead. My current assumption is that he is Marlowe’s father – he is consistently described as having been “seduced” by the drughr, and the timing between his seduction and Marlowe’s current age, assuming the drughr has a nine-month gestation period, works out perfectly – which does explain his obsession with removing Marlowe from all toxic influences (excluding, of course, his own) but does nothing to explain why he keeps coming after Alice and the other kids when Marlowe is not with them. It is entirely possible that I’ve missed something, and I’m going to go back and double-check myself after I write this review, but in this present I have no idea what Jacob actually wants. Even if we assume that he is attacking the others on the drughr’s orders, we also know that he is capable of defying those orders if he so chooses, so that doesn’t really hold water. If I had a thousand monkeys on a thousand typewriters I could still talk till the end of time about how much I can’t stand Jacob, but nothing I say can really beat Alice’s reaction when he comes back from the seeming dead for, like, the five millionth time.

But then Oskar cried out in a panic. Alice stepped smoothly back and looked.

Ragged and smoldering, striding down toward them like a figure of wrath, was Jacob Marber. Even at that distance Alice could see the blood in his beard and the wounds where his ear had been torn away. His clothes were ripped. His big hands were raised.

“For fuck’s sake,” she snapped.

Same, Alice. Same.