Also published on this date: Shelf Awareness for Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Wednesday, February 9, 2022: Maximum Shelf: Ordinary Monsters

Flatiron Books: Ordinary Monsters (Talents) by J.M. Miro

Flatiron Books: Ordinary Monsters (Talents) by J.M. Miro

Flatiron Books: Ordinary Monsters (Talents) by J.M. Miro

Flatiron Books: Ordinary Monsters (Talents) by J.M. Miro

Ordinary Monsters

by J.M. Miro

J.M. Miro's Ordinary Monsters is the wholly original, haunting first installment in a historical fantasy series filled with monsters and magic, set amid disturbingly real dark corners of humanity. This epic novel takes the Victorian gothic aesthetic of its 1880s London setting and re-invents its lore on a global scale.

Marlowe was found as a baby in a freight car. He has remained safe and alive, traveling from London to San Francisco, through the devotion of a series of caring adoptive mothers. Despite their unconditional love, no one can explain how Marlowe is able to emit a blue light and alter people's flesh. Meanwhile, teenaged Charlie Ovid, a mixed-race orphan in the postbellum American South, finds himself in prison after killing a man in self-defense. A mob of white men is eager to kill Charlie, but everyone who has encountered the boy is wary of his inexplicable ability to heal any wounds he incurs.

Alice Quicke and Coulton, representatives of the mysterious Cairndale Institute in Edinburgh, are determined to find and retrieve both boys. Cairndale presents itself as a haven for these children--called Talents--born with unusual abilities that allow them to act as bridges between the world of the living and the world of the dead. But Alice--new to the institute and its shadowy practices--is not entirely convinced by the woman who employed her, Margaret Harrogate, that Cairndale is what is claims to be. Demons from Alice's past haunt her, and she suspects the answers to her questions can be found at the same place she has been tasked to take these children, and specifically from Cairndale's mysterious owner. As Alice, Coulton and Margaret rush to save Marlowe and Charlie from a fast-encroaching evil, a larger battle begins at Cairndale, one that will determine not just their futures, but the future of the larger world.

The universe of Ordinary Monsters is both complex and atmospheric, fully engrossing in its world-building detail and cinematic execution. Miro's novel has no shortage of moody, steampunk-infused, nightmare-inducing locales: rain-drenched, lantern-lit back alleys in Japan; rat-infested, labyrinthine streets in London; ripped and sagging circus tents in foggy San Francisco; a sprawling Scottish estate on a craggy coast choked with islands. The novel's globe-trotting characters jump from trains to boats to carriages, giving Miro's story not only a great deal of specificity and texture, but also a sense of existing within a fully formed world.

Miro's perfect blending of period detail and unique fantasy lore give this spectacle an engrossing, hypnotic quality. Rather than treading well-worn ground, Miro's vision of the Talents is inventive and ambitious, covering everything from their abilities to their imaginative origins. In this first installment alone, Miro manages to convey a vast history of these powers and the world parallel to ours from which they came without ever slowing the plot's pace. The author packs the novel with action sequences as Alice, Marlowe and Charlie whip from one near-miss to the next. Alice is fearless in her actions, like many of the novel's women, giving the book plenty of opportunities to thrust its central characters into danger. As soon as one breathless encounter is complete, another character from the eclectic cast is sure to be risking their life elsewhere, keeping readers on the edge of their seats.  

But while the novel's visually and intellectually stunning world and its fast pace will keep readers turning pages, it is the chemistry and tenderness between its characters that gives Ordinary Monsters its lasting appeal. Charlie and Marlowe are joined by a number of compelling orphan characters whose desire to belong and whose love for each other give even the darkest and more gruesome moments of Miro's book an unexpected hopefulness. Between Charlie's tenacity and loyalty and Marlowe's sensitivity and wonder, it is impossible for readers to be overwhelmed by the disturbing elements of the book--horrifying though they can be. The orphaned Talents themselves are reminders that that which appears most monstrous may actually be a source of good in the world. As one character tells Marlowe at Cairndale, "Anything different from the normal appears monstrous. But it is not. It is not."

The key to the novel's emotional core--which circles these questions of monstrosity, unconditional love and belonging--is motherhood. The mothers who populate Miro's novel are by turns self-sacrificing, negligent, fierce, exhausted and monstrous themselves. Biological and adoptive alike, they may be imperfect, but they are also powerful, able to both save and haunt their offspring and wards. This tension--between what is feared and beloved, valued and rejected, idealized and vilified--gives the world of the Talents its complexity, its heart and its fundamental truths. Clashes between good and evil are never quite as simple as they may appear. To understand that, Miro's book suggests, one need look no further than the figure of the orphan, or for that matter, the figure of its mother. --Alice Martin

Flatiron Books, $28.99, hardcover, 672p., 9781250833662, June 7, 2022

Flatiron Books: Ordinary Monsters (Talents) by J.M. Miro

J.M. Miro: Mythic Storytelling

J.M. Miro is a novelist and poet living in the Pacific Northwest who grew up reading fantasy and speculative fiction. The dark historical fantasy Ordinary Monsters, coming from Flatiron Books on June 7, 2022, introduces the Talents--orphans born with unusual abilities that allow them to act as bridges between the world of the living and the world of the dead.

How did your pseudonym and this project come to be?

I have a second career as a poet and literary novelist here in Canada. But I was a lonely kid, and I came to books through fantasy novels and SFF. I fell in love with stories and storytelling and writing through the community I found inside the pages of those books. As I grew up, I never lost the desire to be a writer, but when I went to university I was seduced into poetry and then into literary fiction. But I always had this fondness in my heart for the boy who fell in love with writing from these kinds of books. When we had kids, I started reading imaginative literature to them. Seeing the wonder that it could create, feeling that echo come back to me, it woke up in me this desire to tell these kinds of stories again. In the back of my head, without any intent or purpose, I started dreaming them up. Ordinary Monsters isn't a children's book, but I think the seeds for this book were planted back then.

Right from the beginning, I knew there was something standing in the way of me fully engaging in the story. And I think that composing it with the pseudonym in mind--as if it were being written by a second person--gave me the freedom to tell the story the way it wanted to be told. There was also an awareness of the readers of my other kind of writing. I like to think they would find reward in this book as well, but I think they might be misled if they thought they were picking up one of my literary novels.

Were there any of those science fiction/fantasy books that particularly inspired this one?

The books that really mattered to me when I was younger included Ursula K. Le Guin's Earthsea books and Alan Garner's Weirdstone of Brisingamen. And some high fantasy like Tolkien, of course. It was the '80s, so fantasy was going through this resurgence, but mall bookstores were what was available where I lived. So, there was a lot of Robert Jordan, the Terry Brooks books and the Dragonlance books. But probably the Le Guin books are the ones that have stayed with me the most. Every time I come back to them, I find there's this fabulous element to them, this fable-like, almost mythic storytelling, the way the sentences are built, how stripped back and spare and powerful they are. There's something profoundly old about the telling in those Earthsea books that astounds me every time.

How did the world-building in Ordinary Monsters take shape for you?

Books that are set in the past are never about the past. They are about the moment they are being composed. And they reflect not the world as it actually was--which was multifold and impossible to encapsulate--but certain perspectives of the author. My Victorian world will reflect the things I've experienced in my life and that I've grown to look for when I walk through the world today. One of the things that intrigues me about Victorian London is that it seems to me the first great modern city. You could walk through Victorian London and see faces from all over the world. People were returning from conquered territories, but people were also migrating to the center of power for the first time in Europe's history in a significant way and changing the fabric of the city itself. If you were to walk around the docks, it would be a global city. And the world really hadn't seen that before.

As a Canadian, I find that fascinating. There's been an ongoing Canadian myth of this desire for the country to build a multicultural, uncentered citizenship. And I don't think we're very successful at it yet; I don't know that anybody is, but I certainly don't think we are. But it does mean that you can move through the cities in Canada and see a lot of different faces on the street. In so many ways, we're a new country that's still trying to figure out what it is. Across my lifetime there's been a growing awareness of this. And I think that view has colored the way I was looking at the Victorian world.

Indeed, there is a lot of globetrotting in this novel. What was most fascinating to you about exploring that?

It's interesting to think how segregated our stories about the past can be. To write about, say, 1880s Japan, you wouldn't think that at the same moment Jack the Ripper is stalking London. People don't put the two together. We don't allow ourselves to think of the past the way we think of the modern world. But what's fascinating is there were people alive in the 1880s who were traveling between these places. You get a glimpse of it with the old cowboy movies. There's always an urban person who's usually a sucker and who's going to get shot or need help from the tough western cowboy. But we don't ever follow that person back into the life they stepped out of when they walked into the Wild West and think about how that world was existing at the exact same moment. The world was out of step with itself in previous centuries. If you telegraph that to today, it could conceivably help us to be a little more understanding of different ways of viewing the world.

What is your process of plotting a series like?

I've been working on this first book for years, but it's been hard to put it all together. I had written myself into a stopping place with another project I was working on that I was having trouble figuring out how to get out of. And I turned my eye back to this story. I planned it all out and sat down and wrote it. And it was nothing like what I had planned. So there's this degree of flying by the seat of your pants, even if you think you've figured it out.

Part of the trick for me with the writing of this first book was letting the book go where it wanted to go, not holding onto the reins too tightly. But then, as the book was nearing completion, I understood that I needed to think my way through where it would go next to make sure that things were set up properly. Once you release a part of the book into the world, you can't make those changes. Writing the second book means that I can't quite write it with the same freedom as that first book. The very peculiar thing is it feels like I've written and published part of a book and then I'm continuing the book right now, almost like a serial novel the way Dickens and company would publish back in the day. Which we don't do anymore, and I can understand why. It's nail-biting! --Alice Martin

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