Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to escape a miserable life as a Victorian chimney sweep? Grubb, an orphan who spends his days squeezing and shimmying through soot-coated passageways for his less-than-beneficient benefactor Mr. Smears, stows away in a trunk on an out-of-town coach at the local inn and finds himself in the curious-and-curiouser world of the Odditorium. Grubb finagles a job with the Odditorium’s owner, Alistair Grim, on the condition that Grubb will never reveal any of the magical secrets he learns working in the Odditorium.
And what secrets there are! Talking watches, wailing banshees, fractious fairies, self-propelled samurai armor, and more mysterious entities hide inside the walls of Grim’s London fortress, and just as Grubb’s starting to think he’s getting the hang of the place, the Odditorium gang finds itself in a battle against the nefarious Prince Nightshade and his evil denizens. Grubb has no idea what he’s doing, but he’s going to have to figure it out fast — because he may just be the only thing standing between his friends at the Odditorium and certain doom.
Honestly, sometimes there’s a little too much going on in this book, and the long lists of magical beings can start to feel a little unwieldy. (Alistair Grim's Odditorium is the first in a series of books, and it feels like it.) At the same time, solutions to some of the book’s big mysteries seem obvious far earlier than the characters in the book realize, though with all the running from doom dogs and battling fire-breathing fairies going on, I’ll buy that the main characters just don’t have the mental space for an “aha!” moment. The fast pace and playful tone (part Dickens, part Steampunk, part fantasy) make up for these bumps along the way. This is a good choice for advanced younger readers who want a story with magic and adventure or for middle readers who enjoyed the Percy Jackson series. You may want to do a quick introduction to Victorian London, particularly the life of chimney sweeps and orphans, before reading, but it’s not essential.