First we meet Sheba, part girl, part wolf. Sheba’s life is looking pretty bleak. She knows nothing about where she came from, and life consists of a cage at the end of the pier where she’s a two-bit sideshow. If I were her, I’d learn how to pick locks, too. Soon she’s purchased by a man named Plumpscuttle who takes her to London with his band of “Peculiars,” an odd lot consisting of Gigantus, a giant of a man, Sister Moon, a girl ninja with catlike eyes and reflexes, Mama Rat and her circus of performing rats. and a foul-mouthed Monkeyboy. Now Sheba finds herself part of a new sideshow, which isn’t that much better until she realizes this odd lot offers her friendship she’s never known.
One day, a poor girl named Till sneaks into the show. She and Sheba take a shine to one another, but unbeknownst to Sheba, Till goes missing the very next day. Till is a mudlark, a child so poor she joins other children to drench through the waterfront to discover anything that might be of value. A monster has been spotted — really a mechanical octopus operated by one of a diabolical band of Victorian villains. It takes Till, and other of the mudlarks, too. Children that the police wouldn’t care to look for. Children that won’t be missed . . . except, of course, by their parents. Till’s parents visit the Peculiars hoping for some help. Before they know it, the Peculiars are on the case, fighting for those who no one else will fight for. (They kinda know how it feels.) It turns out, having wolflike or catlike or monkeylike senses doesn’t hurt when your working out a mystery. Having the city’s rats and the strength of a giant doesn’t hurt, either.
Freaks is a delightful, page-turning mystery with characters unlike any book you’ve read. The bad guys are great fun, too, and as she puzzles through the mystery, Sheba also gets information about her past. The backdrop for all of this intrigue is Victorian England during the time of the Great Exhibition, and the history plays so nicely into the plot. Your middle grade reader is sure to enjoy.
Freaks is ripe for more books in a series, and a movie adaptation. I could totally see someone turning it into a steampunk masterpiece.