The Wonderling, by Mira Bartók – Book Review by Fred Patten

by Pup Matthias

Submitted by Fred Patten, Furry’s favorite historian and reviewer.

The Wonderling, by Mira Bartók. Map, illustrations by the author.
Summerville, MA, Candlewick Press, September 2017, hardcover, $21.99 ([vii +] 450 pages), Kindle $9.46.

The Wonderling is a Young Adult fantasy recommended for grades 5 to 9; ages 10 to 14. It has “already been put into development for a major motion picture,” according to the blurb.

It has been compared to the novels by Charles Dickens about wretched orphans in Victorian England. Think of A Christmas Carol or Oliver Twist, with furries – or at least strange beasts.

“He looked like a young fox but stood upright like a child and had no tail to speak of. His eyes were a lovely chestnut brown and flecked with gold. But there was something about them that gave one the sense that, although he had not been in this world very long, he carried within him some inexplicable sorrow.

He was a creature with an innocent heart. What kind of creature, though, who could say? Despite his fox kit face, his snout was more dog than fox, and there was something rabbity about him too, in the way his nose twitched when he sensed danger, and how he trembled when he heard the loud clang of the orphanage bell. But the most singular thing about him was that he had only one ear.


But Number Thirteen – one-eared, nameless, and small of stature, for he never grew taller than three feet high – could not remember where he came from.” (pgs. 4-5)

Number Thirteen has been raised from infancy in Miss Carbuncle’s large Home for Wayward and Misbegotten Creatures, just outside the large “Great White City of Lumentown”. He is about 11 years old.

“On the front of the Home’s brochure was a happy-go-lucky creature with the head of a rabbit and the body of a little girl, wearing a polka-dot dress and bow, clutching a bouquet of daisies. Beneath the picture, the caption read: Have you been unexpectedly burdened by a recently orphaned or unclaimed creature? Worry not! We have just the solution for you!” (pgs. 6-7)

Miss Carbuncle is a cold-hearted villainess like the worst Dickensian orphanage masters. She can’t even be bothered to give the fox-boy a name. She calls him after his bed number, Number Thirteen.

“A damp mist swirled above the courtyard, slowly creeping into the orphans’ threadbare coats and bones. All the wayward and misbegotten creatures the orphans, the foundlings, and the street urchins doing penance for petty crimes – stood at attention. They were the “groundlings” of the world – a hybrid mix of animal and human, or of animal and animal, that, in the hierarchy of the day, inhabited a place very close to the bottom. They were skinny and squat, furry and feathered, some nearly human if not for a rat tail or jackrabbit ears, a piglet face or wings and webbed feet. Most were half human, half animal, but not all. Some appeared to be all mammal, or reptile, or bird, but for the fact that they spoke and acted like human beings.” (p. 11)

I won’t quote each description or this review would grow endlessly; but here is the orphanage bully who torments Number Thirteen:

“All of a sudden, someone pulled his ear really hard. Number Thirteen spun around to see who it was. Next to Mug and Orlick stood an imposing new arrival: a tall, gray, bristly-furred rat groundling with a long snout and two sharp incisors protruding from his mouth. He had large yellow-clawed feet and a long wiry tail. His shoulders were so scrunched up that he seemed his head was attached to them and that he had no neck at all. His eyes were small and shrunken and black as night.” (pgs. 16-17)

Most of the juvenile creatures are indifferent towards Number Thirteen or actively pick on him. The first one who becomes his friend is Trinket, whom he rescues from the Home’s bullies:

“He gently touched her head. She wasn’t covered in fur at all but in dark-brown, mud-soaked feathers. She was a Bird – a bird with no wings, just two feathery appendages sticking out from her sides, and no tail feathers either. One of her winglets was bleeding, though not too badly, considering how she had been batted about. At the end of each of her mustard-yellow feet were three long toes. Her beak was long, slender, and curved.” (pgs. 43-44)

Bartók’s illustrations show a miniature kiwi, small enough to fit into the palm on Number Thirteen’s hand – and remember, he’s pretty small himself.

Frankly, Number Thirteen is such a wimp and coward that it’s hard to sympathize with him. All of the Home’s mean human adults have names like Sneezeweed, Bonegrubber, and Bunmuncher. Carbuncle could be accepted, but this quickly becomes ridiculous. Dickens’ characters had funny names, but not completely unbelievable ones. How hard would it be for Miss Carbuncle to give Number Thirteen a name instead of a number?

Trinket gives Number Thirteen a real name – Arthur – and persuades him to escape from the Home with her to the Great White City. She gets into the Home’s files and finds out the address in Lumentown where he came from.

Arthur finds wonders in Lumentown that are as fantastic as what Alice finds in Wonderland. Many of them are animal-related, such as Quintus, another rat groundling who is Bartók’s version of Dickens’ Artful Dodger:

“The group made a semicircle around Quintus and Arthur. They were a motly crew of all shapes, sizes, and ages, although none of them looked as young as Arthur. There was a rather corpulent mole-porcupine groundling, a white weasel groundling, a groundling who was part English setter, an anteater groundling, a raccoon groundling, a stern-looking rabbit person, and a creature in a bottle-green trilby. Arthur had never seen such a peculiar-looking groundling. He had the face of an aye-aye and the body of a small hunched-over man.” (p. 193)

If you want bizarre creatures and don’t mind an imagination that sometimes descends into silliness, The Wonderling (cover by the author) is full of them.

Fred Patten

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