Oddity: In a folkloric USA, a brave girl fights magic with magic

Oddity by Eli Brown science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsOddity by Eli Brown science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsOddity by Eli Brown

2021’s Oddity is a wonderful middle-grade adventure, with a valiant and compassionate young heroine, a beguiling take on alternate early-USA history, and a plethora of action and magic. Adults who read it with younger readers might discover it sparks a serious conversation about loyalty, values, and how we decide what’s right and what’s not.

Karin Rytter’s illustrations, which look like woodcuts, enhance the reading experience. So does the tone Brown employs, which reminded me a little of some of Philip Pullman’s middle-grade books, like The Ruby in the Smoke and The Tin Princess. Brown captures the nuance of a folktale while still giving us living, breathing people we care about. Some of those people are other than human.

Clover Constantinova Elkin is the daughter of a country doctor, at the western edge of the eleven United States of America. It’s early in the nineteenth century, and the Louisiana Purchase was scuppered by greed and betrayal. The USA and France, which has settled much of the North American continent, have waged one war already and are on the verge of another, while the members of the first nations, the Sehanna Confederation, are preparing to protect their lands by war too, if necessary. More deadly than guns or cannons, all sides are prepared to use weaponized oddities, magical objects, some of which have catastrophic consequences.

Clover is fascinated by oddities but her father forbids them, until the day he is suddenly ambushed and killed. In his final moments, he hands his medical bag to Clover and tells her to get it to the explorer Aaron Agate in New Manchester, because it holds the most powerful oddity of all — one that is necessary, and provides hope. Clover sets off, hoping that she has learned enough from her father to get to the city, and find the man who is an expert on magical objects.

Eli Brown

Eli Brown

Clover soon attracts companions on the road, including Colonel Hannibal Furlong, a brilliant military strategist, war hero, and talking rooster. Later she travels with Nesa, who hawks patent medicine, all the while dodging the vicious oddity-poachers who killed her father and trying to stay out of the territory of the dreaded witch called the Seamstress, who animates scary hybrid creatures that are part object and part animal. In one scene, confronting a ghoul who wields a sinister magical hat, Clover is pure folklore heroine as she challenges the ghoul to a “secrets” contest and uses her medical knowledge to play.

Oddity bounces from crisis to crisis, building up steam with each one. Sometimes, Clover is able to escape through her own ingenuity, and sometimes people help her. Along the way she begins to acquire more oddities — and begins to question many of the things she grew up believing. She disagrees with Hannibal, who believes another war is unavoidable and necessary. Questions about her own family plague her, especially when she learns that her mother was not merely a member of the same Society as Aaron Agate, she was more knowledgeable than Agate.

Clover faces betrayal and self-doubt. Every adult she trusts tells her she must do the right thing, but she doesn’t know what that is. In some cases, like Hannibal’s, the “right thing” is to obey the military and help start the next war. Clover’s doubt that war is the answer, and Hannibal’s refusal to believe her when she shares her magical knowledge about the truth of the original war, drives a wedge between the two friends.

The oddities themselves are surreal, imaginative and often frightening, like the Heart of the Heron, which ignites endless fire. Some are quirky but problematic, like the Wineglass, which is never empty. That’s great, until someone loses it in a marsh, and it creates the Wine Marsh, an endless stinky lake of red vinegar. My favorite oddity was the magical doll Susanna, who will send celebrity demon-dolls like Chucky running for the hills. By far the creepiest and scariest oddities were the Seamstress’s animal/object creations, called vermin.

The fast-paced story keeps the action coming, and while it never gets too messagey, Brown has some fun with critical-thinking skills and the nature of media (and perhaps propaganda?). Aaron Agate has been written up as a great explorer and collector of oddities, and he is a collector, but he’s actually not very helpful. Closer to home, Clover learns that what she’s been told her whole life about her mother, and herself, is not correct. On the run, Clover has to figure out who she can trust and what she must do.

While the immediate problems are resolved in this first book, war still looms and deadly oddities still abound, especially the dire one Napoleon is using! Brown plans for a second book to complete Clover’s story. I recommend Oddity for kids and adults who love fantasy adventure, and I look forward to the second book.

Published in March 2021. The daughter of a murdered physician vows to protect the magical Oddity he left behind in an alternate nineteenth century where a failed Louisiana Purchase has locked a young Unified States into conflict with France. It’s the early 1800s, and Clover travels the impoverished borderlands of the Unified States with her father, a physician. See to the body before you, he teaches her, but Clover can’t help becoming distracted by bigger things, including the coming war between the US and France, ignited by a failed Louisiana Purchase, and the terrifying vermin, cobbled together from dead animals and spare parts, who patrol the woods. Most of all, she is consumed with interest for Oddities, ordinary objects with extraordinary abilities, such as a Teapot that makes endless amounts of tea and an Ice Hook that freezes everything it touches. Clover’s father has always disapproved of Oddities, but when he is murdered, Clover embarks on a perilous mission to protect the one secret Oddity he left behind. And as she uncovers the truth about her parents and her past, Clover emerges as a powerful agent of history. Here is an action-filled American fantasy of alternate history to rival the great British fantasies in ideas and scope.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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