At first glance, it appears that Kieran Larwood’s “Freaks” might be about superheroes. The three kids on the cover (even though we all know never to judge a book by its cover) are all in fighting stances and have unusual amounts of body hair or are holding knives in a ready-to-strike stance. My first thought was this looks like a Middle Grade version of X-Men, but I’m happy to report I was so wrong.
Sheba, a girl with werewolf-like abilities, Sister Moon, a ninja-trained assassin, and Monkeyboy, no explanation needed, aren’t X-Men at all, they’re circus freaks. Despite being ostracized by their fellow Victorian England Londoners, they take it upon their shoulders to find out why poor children are going missing near their sideshow. It’s not their unusual abilities that make these characters superheroes, it’s their hearts of gold and desire to do what is right that make them worthy of the title.
What’s great about Larwood’s take on superheroes is that all of his characters are beatable. In today’s superhero culture we’re all in on the fact that even though some evil archenemy might make one tiny step toward world domination, ultimately these heroes are going to win, and we’re just one laser vision escapade away from the superhero thwarting the madman and the people of Earth rejoicing in (insert superhero’s name here) keeping us safe. Not so with Larwood’s freaks. They are regularly bruised, battered, and captured, leaving readers wondering if these freaks really do have what it takes to save these kidnapped children. All of the freaks “powers” really aren’t super, but they are used in ingenious ways to each character’s advantage. This vulnerability not only makes Larwood’s freaks/heroes more relatable, but keeps readers guessing as to how, and if, these characters will be able to save the day at all.
Larwood’s main freak, Sheba, is a great example on how to stand out in a genre that is seeing the same female protagonist over and over. First and foremost, she’s covered in hair, so she’s not your run-of-the-mill, drop-dead-gorgeous-but-doesn’t-know-it beauty. Instead, readers are subtly led to judge Sheba and each character on values that really count, such as their compassion and bravery. Not only that, but this story has zero love story at all, leaving Sheba and her freak following focusing on the task at hand to save the children. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good unrequited love moment, but Larwood’s plotline is so delightfully focused and not bogged down by heartsick bemoaning that his book really stood out.
Ultimately, “Freaks” was a fast-paced read that shows like books, no person, circus freak or otherwise, should be judged by their furry cover, but by their strength of character.
A sensory description of Victorian London.
A female protagonist that breaks the mold.