After all the hype about this book, I will admit I found myself a little disappointed. It was fine, I guess, and this is usually where I mention my predisposition against YA which certainly contributed.* I liked this book more immediately after I finished (and likely told my friends who recommended it to me that I liked it), but since then I’ve soured on it a little. (Full disclosure: a ton of other reviews on Goodreads are saying the same things I am, and probably better.)
My big beef with this book was the photos. That’s its big selling point of course, and the fact that they’re real found photos is indeed very cool (less cool is that Riggs got many/most of them from collectors rather than on his own). However. They’re integrated sloppily, both in design and in writing. I’m a designer, so my issues with visual integration (having to flip pages back and forth to understand what’s being referenced; writing ending halfway down the page to put in a photo, but the chapter not being over) might be nitpicking, but forcing the photography into the narrative has nothing to do with design and everything to do with trusting your reader. The most stark example I could find of this was the very end – this is barely a spoiler, but here’s your warning – when Jacob takes a picture of his friends on the boats. Why did he need to do that? If the book had ended on a picture in boats following a written scene in boats, I think the reader would have easily understood what was going on. Every time he force-fed the photos into the writing it was awkward and obvious, like a standardized-test writing prompt.
I’m a designer, so my issues with visual integration might be nitpicking, but forcing the photography into the narrative has nothing to do with design and everything to do with trusting your reader.
I reread my review of La Belle Sauvage recently, and remembered that my greatest praise there was that Pullman truly trusts his readers even though they are children, as he always has. I wish Ransom Riggs would trust his readers to understand that if you reference a real photo a few times, we can extrapolate the rest of the photos as being real – or even if they’re just visuals, so what? This is essentially an illustrated book. Why hide from that?
I do think these books have potential, and if I can find them for free I’ll read the next ones (and I’m interested to see what Tim Burton does with the movie), but so many elements felt forced or underdone that I wasn’t too thrilled with it. The “romance” was unconvincing, unnecessary, and more importantly SKEEVY AS SHIT considering this was also his GRANDFATHER’s girlfriend (yuck yuck yuck). The Peculiars’ personalities were flat and nonexistent except for their Peculiarity. And most importantly, the book was not creepy. At all. Relying on the photos to do the heavy lifting is understandable, but I expected the plot to at least try. Instead, the minute Jacob actually meets the peculiar children any veneer of creepiness disappears and it becomes… well… X Men. (The monsters stay a little scary, but honestly if they hadn’t this would be a one-star book.)
I’m the first to say derivative doesn’t always mean bad, and that’s true here too. As a Fantasy YA book it certainly steals some of the good stuff, and there are redeeming elements. I know other reviewers found Jacob annoying – and he certainly is, but once he gets over some of his Teen Dissatisfaction by meeting the peculiar children he’s certainly easier to like. I didn’t mind that the kids remained kid-ish and in fact found the concept of perpetual childhood interesting; of course they didn’t act like adults in children’s bodies, since they’ve been sequestered in a childhood experience the whole time! The entire loop concept was pretty good too – essentially, all the worldbuilding structure was interesting. The twist of his psychologist being a ghast was a good one even if it was kind of predictable!
If the next books treat the photos a little more like organic illustrations rather than a writing exercise, and if he fleshes out the characters beyond just pieces moving around a convoluted plot, the next book(s) could be great successes. I’m not holding my breath, but I have hope nonetheless.
* A valid question to ask every time is “why do you keep reading them then?” which I do ask myself from time to time. In this case, it’s because I got a ton of recommendations and it was very widely hyped up. In other cases, I find YA books that are truly wonderful, either in spite of or because of their YAness! And in some cases, as in I’ll Give You the Sun , I don’t realize they’re YA until I open the book 😐 (And that one was pleasantly surprising!)