Portal Doors, Talking Marmots, and Disembodied Heads: A Peculiar Peril by Jeff VanderMeer

A Peculiar Peril is, like all of Jeff VanderMeer’s books, very peculiar indeed. Defying genre expectations, it is at once epic fantasy, contemporary fantasy, historical fantasy, and portal world fantasy. It is a young adult novel with POV chapters featuring not just teens but inexplicable magical beasts, talking animals, rebellious mages, a stressed out speculative fiction author, and the head of an undead French emperor. It is a big book full of strange turns of phrase, stranger characters and settings, and a nagging sense that by the time you finish you will both know too much and not enough.

It all begins with the death of Jonathan Lambshead’s grandfather. Jonathan hadn’t seen him in ages, not since his mother dragged him away as a child and escaped to Florida. He went back to England after her death and was stashed away at a boarding academy, but now he’s truly alone in the world. The executor of his grandfather’s estate, a deeply odd man known only as Stimply, tells Jonathan that the only way he can inherit the property is to catalogue everything in his grandfather’s home. A simple enough feat, he thinks. But upon arrival he realizes the extent of his grandfather’s hoarding. Every room, every closet, every nook and cranny is crammed floor to ceiling with junk, inexplicable items, and ominous notes left by Dr. Lambshead for Jonathan to find. And then there are the doors that lead to other worlds.

Jonathan and two of his best friends from Poxforth Academy, siblings Danny and Rack (and Danny’s pet rat Tee Tee) tumble through one of the doors and end up in Aurora, a Europe where magic runs wild and Aleister Crowley is trying to conquer the continent. The Order of the Third Door, a mysterious group Dr. Lambshead was a member of, wants to prevent Crowley from becoming emperor by any means necessary. But they aren’t the only group who, for their own reasons, don’t want him to win. You see, Crowley isn’t working alone. His familiar (who isn’t as subservient as Crowley thinks) is an infernal monster called Wretch who has other plans for his master and Aurora.

On Aurora, Europe and Britain never colonized anyone and is looked on with the same level of disdain and disregard by everyone else that white westerners look at their former colonies in our world. Crowley is allowed to wreak havoc in Aurora’s Europe partly because the rest of the civilized world doesn’t care about some unadvanced backwater and partly because they see Europe as a sacrificial lamb – stage the war there and destroy him before he spreads his influence out. It’s a neat and unexpected twist, one that plays out gradually and subtly.

The basic plot involves Jonathan, Danny, and Rack journeying across Aurora to get to Prague so they can take a door back to England. They’re joined by two adults – a scheming woman named Alice who, like everyone else, has her own secret plans that make her Jonathan’s ally only while their plans happen to line up, and Mamoud, a member of the Order – and other non-human allies. Enemies, those sent by Crowley and Wretch and others up to their own devices, as well as allies who want what Jonathan has and can do also give chase. Mishaps ensue and wild adventures are had. It’s hard to explain in detail what goes down without either spoiling key plot points or just listing off random and weird occurrences with no context. Suffice it to say, the plot is straightforward but the execution is wholly Jeff VanderMeer.

It took me a little bit to settle into A Peculiar Peril. At first the story alternates between Jonathan and Crowley, but VanderMeer soon throws in other characters that expand the world in fascinating ways but also slow down the narrative. Jonathan occasionally feels sidelined in his own story. There is clearly more to him than meets the eye, but because we spend so much time with everyone else (and because this is a duology that needs to save some secrets for the second book) we don’t get much in the way of answers. That’s fine, though. Part of the fun of a VanderMeer novel is VanderMeer himself. His writing style is so unique and compelling that I get as much enjoyment from the act of reading as I do from the actual story.

Besides the bonkers elements, there are lots of little moments of heart, soul, and truth. Jonathan stifling his grief over losing his mother and never knowing his father until it finally overtakes him is handled well. VanderMeer allows him to feel and cry and mourn in a way that feels true to his personality. Danny comes out as queer. Rack assumes Jonathan is asexual and later, in a scene where he is compelled to tell the truth, Jonathan’s revelations confirms he’s somewhere on the asexual spectrum. I didn’t love the way that bit was written, but I rarely like how allosexuals handle acespec characters; it could’ve been done better but it was hardly the worst I’ve seen. There are also a few characters of color (one of whom is also disabled) and thankfully none are reduced to tropes or stereotypes.

If you want a weird and refreshing summer treat, A Peculiar Peril is exactly the book for you. I never knew what to expect, and each new development was as delightful as it was unusual. This isn’t the kind of book you blow through in an afternoon. It demands careful attention and a solid time commitment. But it is so worth it.

A Peculiar Peril is available from Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Read an excerpt here.

Alex Brown is a teen services librarian by day, local historian by night, author and writer by passion, and an ace/aro Black woman all the time. Keep up with her on Twitter and Insta, or follow along with her reading adventures on her blog.

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