This YA novel has an interesting origin — author Ransom Riggs (a pseudonym, I’m guessing?) had been long intrigued by old black and white family photos he kept finding in thrift shops and consignment stores, especially ones in which a trick of the light or the lens had made the subject appear to be or be doing something strange — floating, for example, or two-headed. After years of collecting photos like that, particularly of children, he came up with an idea for a novel based on the images: a novel about a magical school caught in a time loop that housed a bunch of children with equally magical abilities.
The result was this book, which you probably guessed. And while I found it entertaining, I confess I wasn’t at all surprised to learn in the postscript this tale of its origins. Because it reads just like you might think it would — like a story focused way too much on a bunch of photographs that aren’t truly connected in any way. More on that in a moment, though.
The book opens with a 16 year-old kid named Jacob who has just witnessed the vicious murder of his grandfather by some kind of creature in the woods. When nobody believes his story about the ghoulish figure, his parents start sending him to a psychologist to get help for what they believe is clearly some kind of PTSD-triggered psychosis. Jacob can’t stop thinking about the murder, though, or about his grandfather’s cryptic last words, and he begins to try to investigate his grandfather’s past. The puzzle of those last words ultimately lead him to a letter written to his grandfather decades ago that reference a woman who was clearly madly in love with him and is signed “Miss Peregrine.”
Determined to find out what got his grandfather killed, Jacob tracks Miss Peregrine down to a small private school off the coast of Wales where his grandfather had lived for several years as a young man. He talks his father into taking him there, but is surprised to discover when he arrives that the school was destroyed in a bombing during WWII (apparently, it didn’t occur to him to call first?). All the students and teachers were killed, the townsfolk tell him. But if that’s the case, Jacob wonders, how is it possible this Miss Peregrine wrote to his grandfather years later?
Jacob begins exploring the ruins of the school and suddenly finds himself surrounded by a group of children who appear seemingly out of nowhere. Eventually he learns they are the original students — the ones supposedly killed during the war — and they’re still alive, living in a time loop that has kept them stuck in the day of the bombing all the decades since. The students are all “peculiar” — that is, they all have magical abilities of some sort or another. One is invisible, one can levitate, one can make little robots come alive, etc. Miss Peregrine too is in the time loop, and she recognizes Jacob immediately, his resemblance to his grandfather is so strong.
As Jacob spends more time with the group, he begins to learn they are in danger. The evil creature that had killed his grandfather is part of a race of nasty magicals that is after Miss Peregrine as well, wanting to use her and others like her in some kind of spell that would make their kind tremendously powerful. He also learns something about himself — and his grandfather — that throws into question his desire to remain in his own present time.
The end of the novel leaves us wide open for a sequel, so I’m sure the plan here is a series. But while I enjoyed this novel and am looking forward to the next one, I have to confess it’s more than a bit clumsy. For one thing, a good chunk of the plot is a ridiculous rip-off of the second X-Men movie, in which the magical beings are forced to hide from regular humans due to persecution, and some of them are so angry about this they strive to become even more powerful and then wage a war. You could argue that’s kind of an age-old tale, but the parallels here are just too tight for it to be mere motif.
The larger problem, though, is that a plot wholly inspired by a stack of photos, as creative a gimmick as that might be, is going to be difficult to keep from feeling just that way: gimmicky. It was clear Riggs was very, very eager to share as many of the photos with us as he could (each of the children, and some of the other characters too, are based on an actual photo he found in real life, and those photos are presented in the book in between each chapter). The photos are wonderful, and it was a delight to be able to see them, but the focus on trying to create as many characters as he could based on the pictures made for a forced feel at times. Oh, THAT’S why he threw in this extra little bit — he had a photo he wanted to show us. Oh, THIS is why he tossed in that little tangent — another image he wanted to share. As fun as the photographs are, his reliance on them as a tool for creation here felt extremely clunky at times. I think he would’ve done better to use them as inspiration in a more general way instead of trying to work each one into the story.
Riggs is also not the world’s greatest writer, and a lot of the character interactions and dialogue were bland and cliché at times as well.
I’m hoping that now he’s got the characters put together and the story established, he won’t feel the need to rely on the gimmick quite so much in the next book. I’m looking forward to reading it when it comes out, and I could see this series inspiring another set of films that kids and adults alike would really enjoy. As flawed as the book is, the story is definitely engaging, and I left eager for more. Definitely one worth checking out, and it would be a book kids aged 12 or so and up would probably really dig as well. Recommended with caveats!