I’m not a big fan of the steampunk genre. I tried it once with a manga from the library, and thought it was all right, but didn’t enjoy it as much as the martial arts manga I’d also checked out. So take this review of Arthur Slade’s The Hunchback Assignments from someone unfamiliar with the genre — I love, love, love this book!
Fourteen year old Modo is a hunchbacked orphan in Victorian London, who has the ability to change his appearance. When he was a year old, he was adopted by Mr. Socrates and trained to become a secret agent. In his first assignment, he works with fellow agent Octavia Milkweed to stop a secret society who has been kidnapping children and working with Dr. Hyde to turn them feral. I have to admit, when I first heard the name Modo, I was a bit turned off by what I saw as a gimmicky similarity to the Disney movie. But when I found out that “Modo” is Latin for “formed,” I actually like the significance of the difference from the Disney name Quasimodo.
Modo is absolutely lovable. Taught from a young age that his natural form is ugly, he wears a mask to go out in public and creates a handsome knight appearance when dealing with Octavia. Modo’s crush on the beautiful Octavia is just heart-wrenching. Octavia is an intelligent, witty girl, and as she grew up an unloved orphan forced to pick pockets, she also understands how it is to not be wanted. So I think she would accept, and maybe even love, Modo in his true appearance, but because she is so beautiful, Modo is ashamed to remove his mask or his false knight’s face around her. The way he reacts whenever she shows up just makes my heart melt, and I’m not usually romantic.
The mystery about the kidnapped children, at least one of whom has been hypnotized to attack his own father, is exciting and fast-paced. Modo, while mostly innocent of the real world, is physically strong and a quick thinker. I also love how Octavia is a Buffy-esque heroine, strong enough to fight her own battles, and savvy enough to wear pants under her skirt so she can run faster. But the power of Slade’s story isn’t really in the twists and turns; it’s in the very tangible emotions he reveals in his characters, whether the heroic agents or the child victims. The ultimate solution to the mystery, while action-packed enough to imagine on the big screen, is also heartfelt, and that adds to its wallop.
Hunchback Assignments is an intriguing science-based mystery set in Victorian London. More than that, however, it’s about not fitting in, about wanting to be an even better person for love and yet being limited by something beyond your control. It’s inspirational, but not in a sappy you-can-do-anything-if-you-try way. Modo doesn’t completely overcome his appearance or learn to live with it. Rather, he finds a community of people who also don’t fit in. Everyone is an outcast, in some way, even the beautiful Octavia, and if you’ve ever felt unworthy, unloved, or just plain lacking in some way, or, heck, even if you just enjoy a good mystery with a bit of romance, definitely, definitely read this book.
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