Friday, 28 February 2014

Wild Boy, by Rob Lloyd Jones

Firstly, I just want to applaud Walker Books for such a stylish, eye popping, primary coloured gem of a cover. What a beaut, right? I love how it's a cross between pop-up book and sailor tattoo. Coupled with the Victorian setting, freak shows, deductive and observational prowess, dodgy science ethics and a twisting murder mystery, I was getting vertigo from the height of my expectations before I'd even started the first page.

Wild Boy (the only name anybody has ever bothered to bestow on him) is the star attraction in a travelling freak show. Before that, he lived in isolation in a top floor cell in a filthy workhouse, mercilessly bullied by the other boys and abused by the owner. Things aren't much better in the show, but at least he has a friend in his fellow freak Sir Oswald, the no-legged war veteran. Comforted only by the knowledge that he has no place anywhere else in the World, Wild Boy escapes the demeaning, torturous life by escaping into details- he has the most extraordinary talent for seeing things that others don't. Making deductions based on his observations, seeing the little things, making educated guesses and remembering what he's seen.

On the night that he finally stands up to his wicked owner, Wild Boy gets caught up in something way over his hairy head. Mysterious cloaked figures, ominous machines, murder. When a bounty is placed on Wild Boy's head for a murder he didn't commit, he has to find the real killer to clear his own name. Good job he's got those Sherlock style detective skills. Together, he and his frenemy Clarissa, a neglected but feisty acrobat from the circus (Wild Boy punched her in the face once and broke her tooth) must team up to follow the clues left behind by the killer. The perfect team of physical agility and mental brilliance, the killer's trail leads them overground and underground in Victorian London and into the depths of a secret society of mysterious gentlemen.

Wild boy and Clarissa are excellent protagonists, squabbling and fighting amongst themselves, but coming through for each other in the end. Both have been abused and neglected and neither knows life outside of the circus. They make a brilliant team, have a really lovely dynamic and they're both incredibly strong and lovable. The times that Wild Boy's eyes shone with pride whenever he impressed her were a tad heartbreaking, starved of companionship he is bowled over by her friendship and trust.

I loved the subtle nods to Classic gothic literature in this book. Professor Wollstonecraft, electrical scientist took the middle/maiden name of Mary Shelley, the gothic literature and Sci Fi pioneer and author of Frankenstein. One of the test subjects was Arthur Doyle, a nod to Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle. The book is a modern tribute to the both of them, questioning the dangers of scientific advancement and utilising deductive skills for crime fighting purposes. The Gothic Fiction geek in me doffed my cap to the authors (dead and alive) at these moments.

It's packed with plenty of gore and action, but is definitely aimed at the lower age range for Secondary School readers. The lack of any angst or philosophical wonderings distinguishes it from YA nicely. It's a beautiful story about the transformational power of friendship and about learning to celebrate difference and about learning to be happy in one's own skin. All absolutely vital messages not just for young reader, but for anybody on the Earth. A brilliant book, it’s going to get recommended by myself an awful lot in future…

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