REVIEW: Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro

Ordinary Monsters is a gas-lit fantasy romp primarily set in Victorian England and Scotland, but with side-stops in America and Japan. While the larger setting is not overwhelmingly fantastical – the Victorian elements largely accord with our historical version – the story revolves around those fantastical elements that differentiate this world from ours.

Cover for Ordinary Monsters by J.M. MiroOrdinary Monsters utilises the popular trope of a secret society of magic users (although I use the term magic loosely here) operating outside the mundane everyday world. Given the time period, this allows ample opportunity to lean heavily on Victorian archetypes of occult spiritualism, moneyed clubs with hidden agendas and, yes, orphans.

The secret society in question operates the mysterious Cairndale Institute, which recruits chosen children to board on its grounds in Scotland. Admission requires certain special “Talents”, which are the equivalent of innate superpowers. Invisibility and accelerated healing get a look in, along with some more novel powers, such as the ability to manipulate soot and dust. Recruitment, it should also be said, is an aggressive rather than a passive process. The Institute’s agents actively seek out disinherited children worldwide to install within their program.

Overseeing the Cairndale Institute is the enigmatic Dr Berghast, but his true intentions are murky to say the least. Is he a true philanthropist or is there a darker agenda involved?

The story initially follows private detective Alice Quicke, employed by the Institute to locate a young American talent named Charlie Ovid, who possesses powers of self-healing. Charlie is incarcerated in a Natchez City warehouse while the local judiciary and police try to figure out what to do with someone sentenced to death but who cannot be killed. After this case resolves, and not without some bloodshed, Alice leaves Charlie with her partner and goes it alone to find an eight-year-old potential recruit named Marlowe. However, soon after taking charge of him, Alice becomes aware that malignant forces are after the boy and they are both in grave danger.

As the children and Alice delve more deeply into the mysteries of the Institute and its enemies, so to do they delve deeper into the magical underworld that underpins this alternate Victorian era world. The Institute has quite the history it seems, and this history is tied to a disgraced former student named Jacob Marber. Along with Charlie and Alice, Marber is a viewpoint character and a central antagonist. As the novel progresses, flashbacks involving Jacob Marber allow the novel to venture away from Scotland to explore historical Japan, while also granting insight into the history of the Institute and the genesis of Marber’s conflict with the Institute.

The story entails plenty of action and super-powered battles, including a major set-piece on a steam train. Supernatural creatures, a portal to the land of the dead and magical artifacts all make an appearance as Alice, Charlie and the Institute children begin to unravel the Institute’s secrets.

So, did Ordinary Monsters meet my expectations? No, it didn’t, but this is not necessarily a bad thing.

Ordinary Monsters’ cover sets up a mysterious, spiritual ambience, displaying a crow flying across a stormy green background and viewed through an archway. Using the author’s initials rather than full name also felt like a tip of the hat to a certain ambiguity. In part because of this, I was expecting it to lean into Victorian literature a bit harder than it does: ornate prose, indulgent description, maybe an antiquated style. I also expected it to be a bit more of a diabolical puzzle-box, with some sleight of hand, illusion and magical misdirection. It’s a hefty tome after all, somewhere over the 600-page mark in the trade paperback U.K. edition.

As it turned out, Ordinary Monsters’ style and tone fit comfortably into contemporary spec fic. The plot boils down to a prevent the end-of-the-world adventure, and in certain respects it had a Hollywood feel. YA overtones are also present, especially when the focus is off Alice or Jacob and on the children of the Institute. This is by no means a bad thing, it’s just different from what I was expecting.

If I were put to swordpoint, I’d say it could perhaps have been shorter and the characters could occasionally have been more rounded. I also would have preferred it if the mythology were a little deeper, and at times I found myself wondering about the underpinnings of the arcane elements. But that said, did I enjoy it? Yes, I did. It’s an entertaining, straightforward read, and the historical elements are a strong point. The Victorian era is richly and vividly described. I felt like I was up to my proverbial boots in the nightsoil of Victorian England.

My final verdict is that Ordinary Monsters is definitely worth checking out if you’re keen for some darker Victorian-era fantasy.

Read Ordinary Monsters by J.M. Miro

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Durand Welsh

Durand Welsh

Durand Welsh lives in Sydney, Australia, where he’ll read anything with a spaceship or a sword on the front cover. He always enjoys a good action-filled romp, and given his gimpy knee and lack of private healthcare, it’s probably best for everyone that these only occur in his imagination. His dream is to one day grow a beard, preferably his own.