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The Whatnot by Stefan Bachmann

The Whatnot by Stefan Bachmann
5
Book Name: The Whatnot
Author: Stefan Bachmann
Publisher(s): Greenwillow Books (US) HarperCollins Children's Books (UK)
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): YA Steampunk
Release Date: September 24, 2013

I can only imagine that after writing an astonishing debut novel (and one of Fantasy-Faction’s best of 2013), it would be difficult to maintain such high quality in any subsequent books. The pressure must be immense. There is no way but down, right?

Thankfully author Stefan Bachmann neatly sidesteps this problem with The Whatnot, the follow-up to The Peculiar. He does this by somehow creating a book that retains the genius of the first, but with a fresh spin on events. One that is every bit as good as what came before, which, if you remember my embarrassing gushing over The Peculiar, is no easy feat.

Officially a sequel, The Whatnot begins after an undisclosed portion of time following the close of the first book. Bartholomew’s little sister Hettie has been lost in another world. The faery plot to destroy London has been exposed and their treachery has led to a divide between the humans and the faeries that leaves England on the brink of another war.

Yet this is less a true sequel and almost a companion novel. Because rather than pick up where we left off with Bartholomew and Mr Jelliby, as they try to recover Hettie and save the world (again), something curious and rather delightful happens. We discover what happens next through two sets of fresh eyes. One being Hettie as she struggles to survive in the faery world and find her way back home to her brother. The other being an entirely new character who becomes embroiled in the thrilling adventure, thanks to a strange connection to the little girl.

As the blurb explains:

Pikey Thomas doesn’t know how or why he can see the changeling girl. But there she is. Not in the cold, muddy London neighborhood where Pikey lives. Instead, she’s walking through the trees and snow of the enchanted Old Country or, later, racing through an opulent hall. She’s pale and small, and she has branches growing out of her head. Her name is Henrietta Kettle.

Pikey’s vision, it turns out, is worth something. Worth something to Hettie’s brother—a brave adventurer named Bartholomew Kettle. Worth something to the nobleman who protects him. And Pikey is not above bartering—Pikey will do almost anything to escape his past; he’ll do almost anything for a life worth living.

The faeries—save for a mysterious sylph and a mischievous cobble faery or two—have been chased out of London. They’ve all gone north. The army is heading north, too. So Pikey and Bartholomew follow, collecting information, piecing together clues, searching for the doorway that will lead them to Hettie.

What Doesn’t Work

As with the first book, there is little here that doesn’t hit the mark. The prose is still sublime. The plot compelling. The world breathtaking.

The only quibbles I had were minor. For example, I love that we take on the adventure from two new wonderful perspectives, but I couldn’t help but miss Mr Jelliby and his sensible, English approach to life. He is here, as is Bartholomew, but mainly in a supporting character role and we only touch base with him occasionally. A little more of him would have been brilliant, as he was such a treat in the first book.

A little more of the story wouldn’t have gone amiss, either. It’s all over far too quickly for my liking. I know that fantasy writers are famous for loving the old trilogy format, and sometimes you have to wonder if they’re simply padding it out for the sake of tradition, but in this case I could have done with a whole third book. I’m still a little confused as to exactly how long this story takes to unfold—it seems to take place over years rather than months—so a third book might have helped solidify that feeling of being on such a substantial journey. Besides, this world is so fascinating, and the story so compelling and at times heartbreaking, that I can’t help but wonder just how damned amazing a cliff-hanging Empire Strikes Back-style middle act might have been, before we dive into the third and final book to tie up all the loose ends.

What Does Work

If the rule is to always leave them wanting more, Stefan Bachmann nails it. Yet despite my longing for a third book (hell, an entire series in this world would be great) the story here is still a satisfying package of fantasy goodness that will leave you with a contented smile on your face as you doze into a post-binge-read sleep.

I’m not going to prattle on about the writing again. It’s magnificent, that’s all you need to know. From another masterful prologue to the final few pages, the author once again paints his fantasy world in exquisite (if occasionally disturbing) detail. The best part being that this time we get to explore the faery world—and it’s as mad and terrifying and beautifully dark as we had been led to believe!

Pikey is a great new character—a sad, but lovable little boy that will have you rooting for him every bit as much as you might have done Bartholomew in the first book. In a lovely little twist, when the two pair up here it’s almost a reflection of Barthy and Mr Jelliby’s relationship in The Peculiar, with the older Barthy now the more confident leader (for the most part) and Pikey the resourceful, but naïve young protagonist.

Hettie is also brilliant. An almost entirely silent central character in the first book, she finally gets her voice here and what a voice it is! Feisty, smart, brave…everything you could want in a heroine. Seeing the faery world through her eyes is a delight, although all the more terrifying because when all is said and done she’s still a vulnerable little girl at odds with some powerful villains, such as the crazy, spiteful Piscaltine and the elegant but evil Sly King.

And thankfully all of these brilliant characters stay true to themselves throughout. There are no silly decisions made simply to add tension. The exciting plot unfolds in an entirely natural way (for one that involves faery folk) and the characters act as you or I might in their situation. Utterly believable, magical, masterful storytelling.

Conclusion

The Whatnot is a different breed of sequel: one that continues the story, but takes it on from entirely new perspectives. Setting aside two beautifully drawn protagonists readers might already have fallen in love with was a bold move, and one that could have backfired spectacularly. But when their replacements are as interesting and engaging as Hettie and Pikey then the change is a welcome one that freshens things up in all the best ways.

It’s true that some who enjoyed The Peculiar might rue the lack of mystery and clock-ticking ‘race to find the girl’ here, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Less a thrilling ride from start to finish, The Whatnot is a significantly more epic, awe-inspiring adventure through a world many of us couldn’t even imagine in our wildest dreams.

Loved it.

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Rating: 9.8/10 (6 votes cast)
The Whatnot by Stefan Bachmann, 9.8 out of 10 based on 6 ratings
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