Cover of Peregrine Harker & the Black Death by Luke Holland. A bland, burgundy cover

About the Book

Title: Peregrine Harker & the Black Death
Published: 2013

Cover Story: Circus Poster Meets LSAT Preparation Guide, 1991
Drinking Buddy: Smilin’ Jack Meets Pollyanna
Testosterone Level: James Bond Meets Looney Toons
Talky Talk: Just a Bit Over the Top
Bonus Factors: Mitty, Merry Old England
Bromance Status: That Hero I Idolized As a Child Meets That Hero I Idolized As a Child Thirty Years Later

Cover Story: Circus Poster Meets LSAT Preparation Guide, 1991

I’m fairly sure this book was self-published, which doesn’t leave a lot of options for the cover. It could have been a lot worse, with clip-art or a badly-rendered cityscape. Still, speaking as a librarian, this cover isn’t going to grab any readers, especially younger boys who aren’t thrilled with books to begin with. Hopefully Peregrine will sell enough that it will be re-released with something a little more eye catching.

The Deal:

London, England, 1908. Fifteen-year-old orphan Peregrine Harker is drudging away at his job as a cub reporter. He longs for adventure, romance, and intrigue, just like any teenage boy. Unfortunately, his big assignment is to find out why tea costs so darn much recently (this is England, after all). Harker has barely left the office when he confronts a couple of smugglers and finds himself locked in a coffin, ready to be buried alive. He goes on to engage in a high-speed car chase (this is 1908, so they were probably doing almost forty), hold a shootout in a cemetery, bust out of jail, and participate in an illegal, back-alley boxing match.

Hey, not bad for the business page.

Harker is assisted by Archie, his cousin who’s a badass Royal Navy officer, and Miss Laura, the comely, pistol-packing daughter of a tea magnate. Oh, yeah.

Drinking Buddy: Smilin’ Jack Meets Pollyanna

Two pints of beer cheersing

Well, Peregrine is a hero, there’s no denying that. Every time there’s a good deed to be done, he rushes in, pistols in each hand, wheels squealing, cannons roaring.

Unfortunately, that’s about all he does. He’s completely brave, totally heroic, and nothing but good. But he has no real personality. I’d sure as hell want this guy at my back during a firefight, but I’m not sure I’d like to go on a long carriage ride with him. Especially since the carriage would probably be set upon by Indian mercenaries.

Testosterone Level: James Bond Meets Looney Toons

This book pretty much is one hundred percent action. We rarely go five pages without something exploding or Harker dodging a bullet. Even when he’s tidying up his flat, an Indian cobra springs out of his sock drawer.

I had to not only suspend my disbelief, I was forced to corner it on a dark street, beat it severely, and leave it bleeding in the gutter.

While the cartoonish action was off-putting to me, it may be just the thing for a young, reluctant reader.


Talky Talk: Just a Bit Over the Top

Okay, it was a lot over the top. There is nothing subtle in this book. The villains are so utterly bad, they make Snidely Whiplash and Dr. Evil look like upstanding members of the community. They actually say things like ‘My devious plans’ and ‘my vile deeds.’ Peregrine, Archie, and Laura are the good guys, right out of central casting, and everything wraps up in a neat little bow.

As a YA book, that’s a fail. As a middle-grade book, it’s a win. There’s no sex, no cursing, and the violence is cartoonish, and mostly off screen. I’d be embarrassed to recommend this to a sixteen-year-old, but I’d give it to a ten-year-old with no reservations. The non-stop action, simple plot, and larger-than-life characters are just the thing to wow upper elementary and middle school readers, and maybe get them interested in other great action books.

Bonus Factor: Mitty

Movie poster for The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947)

In case you’re not familiar, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty is a short story by James Thurber, about a man who escapes his humdrum life by fantasizing about being someone exciting, such as a pilot, soldier, or criminal. Harker does the same thing, in order to avoid the drudgery of working at the newspaper. And–this is hard to believe–his fantasies are even more crazy than what happens to him later. There’s actually a woman tied to the railroad tracks.

Bonus Factor: Merry Old England

A bridge and water next to an old building in Bath, England

Things I learned about Victorian England from this book:

They like to drink tea.

They slap the word ‘Royal’ in front of everything.

They used to control India.

Okay, so this was hardly an educational experience. But it may be just enough to whet a reader’s appetite for other books on this subject.

Bromance Status: That Hero I Idolized As a Child Meets That Hero I Idolized As a Child Thirty Years Later

It’s one thing to have a larger than life hero when you’re ten or eleven. But when you’re pushing forty, the idols of the past seem a little silly. I’ll leave Peregrine and his buddies to a much younger generation.

FTC Full Disclosure: I got a copy of this book free from NetGalley. I couldn’t even ask for a bribe, let alone receive one.

Brian wrote his first YA novel when he was down and out in Mexico. He now lives in Missouri with his wonderful wife and daughter. He divides his time between writing and working as a school librarian. Brian still misses the preachy YA books of the eighties.