Set in the 1800s in England, the story starts off with Dr. Hyde working on his latest formula. It has rather gruesome side effects. Meanwhile, Mr. Socrates is looking for the unusual and he finds it in a very young boy named Modo who can, to some extent, change his appearance. Skipping ahead several years, Modo’s first true test comes when he’s left on his own in London. There he finds a way to make enough money for food and lodging, which leads him to meet Miss Octavia Milkweed. Together, they get pulled into a devious plot, one that has Dr. Hyde at the center.
This was a very fun story that gave a new twist to some old classics. Of course there is Dr. Hyde, who I think obviously comes from the story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Then there is Modo himself. His full first name is Quasimodo, which is the important character from The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. Plus there’s a bit of The Wolf Man (a classic 1940s movie) going on too. And if I want to stretch things a bit (there’s the need for Modo to wear mask sometimes), perhaps there’s a touch of The Phantom of the Opera as well. Slade has done a great job of plucking certain elements out of these classics and spinning them into an entertaining tale set in a steampunk Victorian England.
Modo and Tavia (short for Octavia) were the stars of the show. We get to see snapshots of Modo growing up in the care of Mr. Socrates. He’s a stern figure and Modo gets most of his human contact from Mrs. Finchley, a governess and care taker, and Mr. Tharpa, his Indian fighting instructor. Although Tavia comes into the picture later, we learn about her upbringing through remarks she makes or her inner dialogue. Both of these kids (who meet when they are in their teens) have interesting backgrounds and Mr. Socrates is obviously shaping them for bigger things. I really liked that we aren’t sure for most of the book whether Mr. Socrates’s goals are good, bad, or simply selfish.
Dr. Hyde is one of those evil characters you enjoy hating on. He’s totally self-absorbed, running these cruel experiments solely for his own ends. He’s not the only evil one. There’s a fascinating lady with a steampunked mechanical arm and also a crippled man made whole by metal and gears. I do have to say I was a little disturbed by Dr. Hyde’s experiments on the dogs. Oh, how that made me want to see him ended!
The steampunk elements are definitely well in place with this Modo/Tavia adventure. I have read one of their other adventures, a graphic novel called Ember’s End, that was described as a steampunk western but had very little steampunky goodness in it. In contrast, The Hunchback Assignments does not disappoint in this aspect. There were small touches here and there throughout the story, and then the larger elements such as replacement body parts.
Modo himself is quite charming. His upbringing is not your standard schooling with extracurricular activities. His unusual looks could easily be called ugly but his morphing abilities give him some lee-way in fitting in. He’s clever and strong but also very shy about who sees his real face. There’s a lot to relate to in this kid. Tavia is also a treat, in different ways. She’s had to learn to be clever to avoid the pitfalls of street life, but she’s a different kind of clever than Modo. She’s also quite pretty and she knows it, which allows her to use her beauty to gain information. I was very glad to learn, as the story progresses, that she can also be a very loyal friend.
All told, this was a excellent start to a YA steampunk adventure series. I look forward to reading more of the series.
Narration: Jayne Entwistle was better than I thought she would be. I think because I eyeball read the graphic novel Ember’s End, I already had certain voices for Modo and Tavia. Entwistle hit Tavia’s voice perfectly. However, I was expecting a deeper voice for Modo as an adult. Now since he’s not an adult in this book, but ranges from a toddler to a 14-year-old, I think Entwistle did a really decent job. Also, she did have deeper male voices for the older men like Mr. Socrates. I loved her English accents. Also she was excellent at portraying the emotions of the characters.