A Map of Days, Ransom Riggs

Some series just don’t know when to die.

But I guess, if you get acclaim – and money – for it, why stop?

Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine‘s series was enjoyable enough as a piece of popcorn reading. And the books were better than the awful film – but that’s not saying much.

In the first trilogy, the world of the peculiars in Europe was threatened by other peculiars within various past time loops; in order to maintain balance, the world of the peculiars now appears to be threatened in the current day in America by normals in this set-up for (presumably) a new trilogy.

In the first trilogy, we had to be introduced to the world of the peculiars – X-Men by any other name – with their varied powers of fire, invisibility, strength and shape shifting; to time loops and eternal childhood; to the threats of the hollowgasts and wights. And Riggs did this traditionally enough by giving us Jacob Portman as a narrator who was brought up as a normal and introduced to the peculiar world for the first time, just as Harry Potter was brought up as a muggle until introduced to the wizarding world. The first book, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, could therefore be forgiven for being a little slow to get to the action because we had some world building to do. Thereafter, the series followed Jacob Portman and his friends as they lurched from crisis to crisis and the plot was fairly straightforward: Miss Peregrine had been abducted; the children sought to rescue her whilst evading the hollows.

The pace of this novel, however, was so slow! And the writing so pedestrian! And the narrative voice from Jacob so tedious! And it took such a long time to get to any sort of plot – so much so that I very nearly gave up on reading it. The conclusion of The Library of Souls did require a lot of resolution: the sudden and unexpected arrival of Miss Peregrine and her wards in modern day America as Jacob’s parents were taking him to an asylum. How to reconcile these two worlds? Rigg’s approach was to create an extended bureaucracy in the Council of the Ymbyrnes, give Jacob and his friends menial positions and turn the Panloopticon in a time-travelling customs service – apparently without any sense of irony, satire or humour.

And it is well known that the presence of families is always an encumbrance to child protagonists – even teenage ones – so we have a plethora of orphans in young adult literature, J. K. Rowling carts her wizards and witches off to boarding school and Derek Landy creates a living mirror image as a stand in… and Riggs – after a failed attempt to let Jacob tell the truth – smashes a car, wipes the parents’ memories and sends them on a convenient vacation ex machina. Narrative deletion rather than resolution which, for me, felt just cheap.

And thereafter, there are interminable conversations, trips back to Devil’s Acre which takes on a very Ministry of Magic feel to it, interminable silences, pages of the peculiar children learning to be normal and eating pizza for the first time. There was bags of potential in this: the conflict between the fact that the children look to be teenagers but are actually eighty-plus years old; the fact that they have a lengthy experience of a limited world. None of which was really developed at all – it was most poignantly touched on with a puppy they come across in a loop later on, unable to age or to grow its brain and therefore develop:

“Brother Reggie!” Paul called out. “You teach him to roll over yet?”
“Hey, look who’s back!” the boy said, looking up and giving Paul a salute. “Not yet. He’s a good pup, but I think his brain’s too small.”
“Aww, that’s cruel,” said Bronwyn.
“I don’t mean to be,” said Reggie. “I just have to let him out of this loop for a while so he can get bigger. He won’t grow here.”
“I didn’t think of that,” said Bronwyn.

“That’s why you almost never see babies in loops,” Emma explained. “It’s considered immoral to keep them that young for an unnaturally long time.”

Yet no-one seems to see or connect this to the plight of the children who all seem to be around sixteen biologically. Pretty much in the midst of adolescence. My (limited) understanding of the science – which is mostly gleaned from listening to Radio 4 and listening to The Infinite Monkey Cage – suggests that the brain is literally in a process of rewiring, excising sections and growing others and that the brain continues to develop albeit less dramatically into our twenties and thirties. Is the arrest of the children’s development during adolescence not as cruel as the puppy?

Anyway, the plot does develop, thanks to the very strange decision to take your girlfriend to have a look around the house in which your grandfather, who was also her lover, lived. Utterly inconceivable revelations about old Abe Portman’s life reveal themselves including underground bunkers and hidden cars and mission ledgers and a partner in the mysteriously named H with whom Abe seemed to be rescuing unidentified peculiar children across America. From there, eventually, Jacob makes contact with H, is given a mission to locate and rescue a peculiar child and he sets off on a road trip across America with Emma, Millard, Enoch and Bronwyn.

We soon learn that America has fewer ymbyrnes than Europe but also fewer hollows – which makes Jacob’s peculiarity rather obsolete – and has a more clannish atmosphere, perhaps. And chains of fast food restaurant which give mission details and weaponry out like the toys in a Happy Meal. One of the more bizarre moments, which would require a level of organisation beyond what appears to be a handful of old men. But otherwise, the same basic narrative evolves: we travel from loop to loop, some more welcoming than others, until they reach the unidentified peculiar. The final section of the book is a bit more pacy as they rescue the new peculiar, Noor Pradesh, from what looks like a SWAT team whose identity and affiliation and mission are not revealed. Noor’s peculiar ability – the absorption and emission of light – is one of the more interesting in the novel, too, but underdeveloped – presumably to blossom later on in the series.

Once again, the old fashioned and peculiar photographs are there and the narrative seems forced into accommodating them, rather than being served by them. And once again, I’m not quite sure where the novel is pitched between adult or young adult…

The question, though, is whether I’ll continue with the next novel, The Conference of the Birds, due for release in January 2020. Possibly. Now that the set-up is done, it might crack on with things more. And I am a completionist when it comes to book series.

Ratings:

Overall: ⭐⭐⭐

Characters: ⭐⭐⭐

Plot / Pace: ⭐⭐

Language: ⭐⭐⭐

Publisher: Penguin

Date: 2 October 2018

Available: Amazon

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