In the mid 19th century, a mysterious and powerful man known as Mr. Socrates goes on a mission to deepest, darkest France. He’s pursuing a rumour about a strange baby boy with monstrous deformities but who, nonetheless, possesses a unique ability that could serve Queen and country. He finds said boy as a sideshow exhibit in a travelling circus, and buys him off the proprietors.
This proves a remarkable stroke of luck for the boy Modo, at this point only one year old. For the next thirteen years, he’ll be well fed and cared for, under the stern tutelage of Mr. Socrates, and the more compassionate attentions of Mr. Socrates’ servants — the loyal and skilled Indian Tharpa, and the motherly Mrs. Fitchley. Modo is, however, being cared for and educated with an eye to his service for the British Empire. His ability to change his physical appearance — even removing the hunchback, and taking on the appearance of others — means that whether Modo likes it or not, he is about to become a spy.
So begins The Hunchback Assignments, an award winning steampunk-inspired historical fantasy series by Governor General Award-winner Arthur Slade. In this first book and its sequel (The Dark Deeps), Slade launches into a wildly imaginative world bound to thrill audiences.
The Hunchback Assignments is steampunk through and through. It has allowed Slade to indulge his clear love for the fantastical literature of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne. Plenty of fantastical situations await the budding spy Modo as he defends the Victorian British Empire from the nefarious members of the Clockwork Guild. There is an evil henchman with robotic parts powered by steam, there is a seductive villainess with a metal hand, there are foppish aristocrats (including Prince Albert) who have inadvertently fallen under the Clockwork Guild’s sway. There are gadgets galore for villains and heroes alike.
But in addition to be a fun, swashbuckling adventure, Slade turns his story around some serious issues and some very human characters. Soon after Modo turns 14, Mr. Socrates gives him a trial by fire, abandoning Modo on the streets of London to sink or swim. The extreme poverty that marred the Victorian era is not shied away from, and it becomes an important plot point as Modo works to defeat the nefarious plot of the Clockwork Guild.
All of the characters, from Modo to Mr. Socrates to Mr. Socrates’ servants, are undeniably human, and working against the expectations of their era. Tharpa walks a fine line between being Mr. Socrates’ friend and equal and being his servant. Mrs. Fitchley cannot help but give Modo the mothering he deserves, but Mr. Socrates himself has to fight to maintain his stiff upper lip and not treat Modo as his son and a reminder of another child who died long in his past.
Then there’s Octavia, a young woman Mr. Socrates rescued from the streets and put in his employ as a young spy in her own right (and who Modo immediately develops a crush upon). Despite being given a new and exciting life with far more freedoms afforded to an urchin of the street, she still finds herself chaffing against the sexist expectations of the day. She’s as good as any man in Mr. Socrates’ employ and she knows it, and she quickly gets tired of not being given her due. She and Modo make an excellent team, needling each other while becoming fast friends.
As for Modo, he is quite conflicted, torn between his love for Mr. Socrates as a de-facto father, his respect to the man as his superior, and his lingering resentment for Mr. Socrates inability to treat him more as the former rather than the latter. There is his loathing over his condition; in spite of how special and important it makes him, he can’t help but hate the fact that he can’t show his true face to Octavia — or, even, anybody — for fear of the horror he’d see in response.
Even among the villains, there is depth. There are people here who are pure evil, but there plenty of others who are victims of their own circumstances, more to be pitied than hated. Even among the major villains, we have a sense of history and righteous anger in their actions. They don’t just twirl their moustaches and go bwa-ha-ha.
The Hunchback Assignments sets all of this up wonderfully, but in The Dark Deeps things get, well, deeper. In this story, influenced by Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea, Modo and Octavia are sent to investigate a mysterious force that has been preying on the shipping lanes of the north Atlantic. Here, the number of players increase, as we add the people behind the Nautilus-like ship and a spy from France to the battle between England and the Clockwork Guild. Colette, a young woman of half-Japanese descent, is not only a potential rival to Octavia for Modo’s affections, she has her own reasons to share Modo’s sense of isolation from mainstream society, but she is also fiercely loyal to France — a world power which might be willing to ally with England, but which definitely follows its own agenda.
It’s no surprise to me that the list of awards this book series is winning has started to add up. Slade writes with verve, combining the fantastical elements with heartstopping action and the depth of well drawn characters in conflict with themselves and each other. His writing style will appeal to children of all ages, and he’s not afraid to put out some big ideas and pretty heavy concepts, and let the reader catch up.
The Hunchback Assignments series looks destined for a long and fruitful run. The third book, The Empire of Ruins is due out in Canada and Australia in March. There’s a lot of promise in the developing relationships of the regulars, and the main story of the Clockwork Guild keeps on ticking (pun obviously intended). If you have any interest in fantastical literature with a bit of a Victorian bent, you will love this series, to read to yourself or to your children. Pick up your copy today.