[Book cover credit: librarything.com/work/9970335]
Otto (the oldest one with a scarf he never takes off and his own sign language he uses instead of actually talking), Lucia (the middle one who translates for Otto and is generally snarky and in charge), and Max (the youngest one and a bit of a know-it-all) keep pretty much to themselves. Not that they have a choice. Since their mother went missing, everyone in town has been avoiding them. The only person who will have anything to do with them is Mrs. Carnival, who watches them when their dad goes away to paint portraits. It's not great; it's not fun. But the Hardscrabble children are used to it.
Note to the reader: If you ever want your life to turn topsy-turvy, say, "Things will go on just as they always--" Oops, I almost said it.Otto says it, and for a second topsy turvey look like a good thing. They'll be sent to London to stay with their cousin Angela rather than staying with crabby old Mrs. Carnival! But then they arrive in London only to find Angela on holiday. In search of an adventure and unwilling to return to Mrs. Carnival, they head to their secret great-aunt Haddie's where they find more weirdness and mystery than they bargained for.
This book is not a fantasy; there is no magic. Weird things happen and you think that they MUST be magical/paranormal/fantastical, but there is a rational explanation for all of it. Weird creaky (not squeaky) rats that run on the same path all the time? Taxidermy-ed miniature zebras? A hole in the floor that goes forever? A cat with five legs? All explained. Well, not the cat, but he's the most believable bit to begin with. Still, this is certainly not realistic fiction. It is precocious-kids-left-on-their-own fiction, or rich-people-are-crazy fiction. Lemony-Snicket-type fiction. Let's just call it unrealistic fiction, shall we?
Even though they live with their father, the three Hardscrabble children are pretty used to fending for themselves. Since their mother mysteriously disappeared (and both Otto and their father were suspected of killing her and burying her in the garden), their father has been sad. He's also been taking more portrait clients; former royals who have been kicked off their thrones and who don't often pay their bills. Still, the Hardscrabbles manage.
Adventure upon adventure, the kids all end up in Snoring by the Sea, a small town outside of London, where their secret great-aunt Haddie is staying. They meet a taxidermist who could easily be mistaken for a Viking invasion reenactor, take up lodgings in a castle folly with Haddie, suffer through some ghastly American food (even though Haddie never gets her hands on the "fluff" to make fluff-r-nutters), and hear the local legend of The Kneebone Boy. The local aristocracy, the Kneebones, sent all of their children to grow up in the castle folly, back in the day. That way they adults could do adult things and the kids could do whatever their hearts desired. It also kept the Kneebone children from the oldest child of each generation, the Kneebone Boy, born half-human half-animal. The Kneebone Boy was kept, every generation, locked in a tower in the castle. This is all just legend, of course. But there is something weird going on in the forest surrounding the castle and the castle folly. The Hardscrabbles are certain that the Kneebone Boy is real and that he has escaped, and they're determined not to let him be captured and locked away in his tower again.
Unrealistic fiction has the most awesome and memorable characters, and Otto, Lucia and Max are no exception. They are all precocious, sarcastic, and quick-witted little monsters, constantly attacking each other, but not in a mean way. They're all just too smart for their own good, or at least each is trying to prove to the other two that he or she is the most knowledgeable of group on any given subject (Max usually wins). Lucia, the middle child but still clearly the leader of the group, is used to Otto going along with her, her ideas, and her adventures, especially as she is his translator. She's also still stuck in the thinking that Max is just little. Too little to be of help, too little to be a friend the way that Lucia and Otto are friends, too little to make decisions for the group. Through their adventure, each of the Hardscrabble children gets more of a will of their own, and instead of making them grow up and grow apart, they realize that they not only need each other but truly like each other as well.
The Kneebone Boy comes out in hardback today!
Book source: ARC picked up at ALA.
*Quotes and page counts are from an uncorrected proof and may not match the published copy.