Mira Bartok, The Wonderling

Walker Books, 2017, ISBN 978-1-4063-7064-5

Number 13 - he hasn't been given the dignity of a name - is a groundling, a human-animal hybrid, suffering torment at the terrifying Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures. He is half fox, small and weak, with a stammer and just one ear, defects which lead to merciless bullying from some of the stronger groundlings and from the tyrannical headmistress. Miss Carbunkle detests her charges. Their sole value to her is as factory fodder. Life consists of relentless toil, hunger, cruelty, loneliness and fear. But for the first time, Number 13 makes a friend, Trinket, a tiny bird groundling with impressive inventive skills. She gives him a name: Arthur, after the good king of legend. And she gives him courage, courage to think the unthinkable. They manage to escape. The countryside outside is beautiful, but Arthur leaves the beauty behind to search out the only thing he knows about the time before he entered the home. He has to find an address in the city. Lumentown is a stratified society in which rich humans live in luxury but other creatures endure horrific conditions. Dirt, theft, crime and corruption are everywhere. Before long Arthur finds himself living in a yet more dreadful place, a sewage-infested city beneath a city. Existence here is more precarious still. By now he has discovered that there is one thing Miss Carbunkle loathes even more than groundlings. Music. She is on a mission to eradicate it from the world. Half-formed memories convince him that songs and music are vital, and that her plan must be foiled. He is going to have to be very brave and clever, and will need all the help he can get.

The Wonderling is an extremely impressive debut novel. It is a very long book, and not for everyone, but many readers will become so immersed they won't want it to end. Mira Bartok has created a richly inventive fantasy world, with great characters and appealing steampunk elements. Her use of language is wonderful, her vocabulary particularly striking. There is a Dickensian feel to the book: strong shades of Oliver Twist and David Copperfield especially. Some of the grotesquery has a Dahlesque quality too. It is no surprise that a film version is in the pipeline. A sequel is surely deserved.