Title: The Hunchback Assignments
Author: Arthur Slade
Modo has grown up under the care of Mr. Socrates, learning much from books and tutors but completely isolated from the real world. It may have been a kindness—Modo is a hunchback with lopsided features, and once he was made aware of his appearance he was also warned how the world would react to it. But Modo has a gift that allows him to change his appearance, and it is that gift that Mr. Socrates intends to use. The opportunity comes sooner than Modo expects when the Clockwork Guild’s machinations surface right in the heart of London.
This Victorian-era steampunk draws on a lot of familiar elements. Although I was delighted to see a reference to George MacDonald’s The Light Princess, other references left me much less thrilled. Modo, for instance. Modo is rather obviously either based on or intended to be Quasimodo, and the Notre Dame birthplace clinches it. Hyde is also the main villain (although no sign of a Jekyll), with his transforming potion put to evil uses. At least he has some clockwork skills to go with his mad chemistry.
This will probably appeal more to people who like very light doses of magic in their steampunk. Modo’s ability appears to be unique, and the setting is otherwise a rather ordinary London with a few steam gadgets thrown in (all of which belong to the enemy and were created by Hyde). Modo’s main dilemma has more to do with keeping a certain lady from discovering what he really looks like than dealing with the Clockwork Guild, at least at first.
When he does deal with them, the story plays a bit fast and loose with his abilities. He goes on a wild adventure for three days with almost no sleep, yet despite being tired he can usually shift his face the way he wants it when he needs it. It felt a bit like cheating since he’s not really showing the exertion he says he’s feeling.
This wasn’t bad, but I’d rather have steampunk along the lines of Michael Pryor’s Laws of Magic series, which amply supply magic, or something that uses the steam gadgets themselves a lot more. The use of Hyde as a villain also disappointed me because I’d rather see a character that does not draw so heavily from existing lore. I rate this book Neutral.