Ordinary Monsters is a small title for a big book. Coming in at 672 pages, it’s not a short read, nor is it a light one. It is, however, a compelling, complex tale—one that sucks you into the magically grotesque underbelly that seethes throughout this alternate history of the late 19th century.
The cast of characters in Ordinary Monsters is long, and we spend time in the points of view of most of them. The focus of the tale, however, revolves around a young boy named Marlowe, a child who gives off a bluish glow sometimes, and who was found as a baby by a woman on the run, alone in a boxcar next to his dead nursemaid.
Marlowe isn’t the only child out there, however, who is different than most. In this alternate Victorian age (the book takes place primarily in the early 1880s although we spend a decent part of the book a decade earlier as well), some people are born as Talents, those who have specific abilities that enable them to do seemingly supernatural feats like control dust, become invisible, or be able to harden their skin to thwart off blows that would maim mundane flesh.
The fact Talents exist is not known to the world at large. And when they are children, they often endure hardships for being born different. One, for example, lived on the streets invisible to all, while another faced an angry murderous mob, fearful of what their unnatural abilities portend. A man named Dr. Berghast, however, knows how to find them. And when he does, his agents bring the children to Cairndale, his clinic in Scotland where the children learn how to harness their abilities and keep them safe from the real monsters out there.
Marlowe, at eight years old, is one of those children. Another one of these young Talents is a a 16-year-old named Charlie Ovid, whose body repairs itself no matter what harm and hurt it comes to. The two both live in the United States but do not know each other at the beginning of the book. They are brought together later on, however, when two of Berghast’s agents separately track them down. As they start their individual journeys to Carindale, however, Marlowe and the Berghast agent Alice Quicke are hunted by another kind of monster named Jacob Marber.
Jacob is a Talent who was once a man but has become something altogether different for reasons that at first remain unknown. His ability involves manipulating dust, and after becomes tied to an evil creature called a drughr, his powers literally consume him, make him more dust than flesh and bone and, as such, seemingly impervious to bullets and blows that would be fatal to a mere mortal. Jacob, now tied to the drughr, has murdered many, and he has little qualms about murdering more to get to Marlowe.
Marlowe and Charlie, who ultimately become as close as siblings, aren’t the only two Talents we follow closely in Ordinary Monsters. At a point of great tension in Marlowe’s journey to Cairndale, the book jumps in time from 1882 to 1873 and introduces us to Komako Onoe, a nine-year-old living on the streets of Tokyo with her younger sister who, like Jacob, is able to manipulate dust. Through her story we learn more about Jacob as well and meet another Talent named Ribs before we head back to 1882 Cairndale where Marlowe and Charlie meet them both.
It’s at Carindale where these four Talents must face not only Jacob but also uncover some of the institute’s secrets. Dr. Berghast clearly hasn’t shared everything with these kids, and the mysterious being who guards a portal to another world where the dead reside and the drughr lives, is weakening, leaving the world of the living vulnerable to those from this other, darker, realm.
The story spins out from there, each character and their history an intricate thread on an ever-expanding web. And as we spend time with Charlie, Marlowe and, later on, with Komako and Ribs, things get darker and more desperate for pretty much everyone.
It’s here I should mention that this book has many content warnings, including child death (there is more than one), pregnancy loss, and body horror. But even though the book covers some grim territory, it also has strong threads of hope, love, and found family, specifically around the bond that Charlie and Marlowe form,that keep the story from becoming too macabre to take.
The worldbuilding is also immaculate and impressive in its detail and expansiveness; there’s a sound magic system behind the abilities of the Talents, and there are inklings to other parts of this world that Miro weaves in that feel fully realized even though we only spend a few pages in this many-hundred-page tome touching on them. One sequence, for example, involves Charlie briefly joining up with a gang of street kids when he becomes lost on the streets of London. While we spend only a few pages with them, Miro details out a whole street urchin hierarchy, a mini-kingdom hidden in the dark alleyways of Victorian London, replete with characters who clearly have their own story and own motivations separate from the focus of the novel.
The ending of Ordinary Monsters also meets the large scope of the book, and it also feels like the tip of the iceberg for what Miro has created in this world. And while the last few pages provide closure on main plot points, it also leaves questions unanswered and major threads dangling. Are Jacob and the other monsters apparently vanquished in the book really gone? Will Charlie really be able to find and rescue Marlowe from the underworld? I have no doubt Miro has answers to those questions and knows where those loose ends will lead, and I can’t wait for the next book comes out to see where the story goes from here.
Ordinary Monsters is published by Flatiron Books.
Vanessa Armstrong is a writer with bylines at The LA Times, SYFY WIRE, StarTrek.com and other publications. She lives in Los Angeles with her dog Penny and her husband Jon, and she loves books more than most things. You can find more of her work on her website or follow her on Twitter @vfarmstrong.