Brown’s fans have to wait a long time between novels, but each one is worth it. Readers who adored his award-winning “culinary pirate novel” Cinnamon and Gunpowder will be equally enchanted by Oddity, even though this novel is labeled for middle-grade readers. The setting is an alternate early-19th-century America, in which the eleven Unified States are at constant war with Napoleonic Europe, and magical objects called Oddities appear from time to time, sought after by collectors like the narrator’s late mother.
Clover is the 13-year-old daughter of a Prague-trained physician who finds herself orphaned at the start of the narrative and must turn her pragmatic nature to the problem of survival. Brown creates a world reminiscent of Oz and Narnia, employing a lighthearted tone and weaving elements of American folklore and wonder tales into Clover’s adventures. She quickly befriends a cheerful young mountebank as well as one of the few living oddities, a famous talking rooster who is a veteran of the Louisiana War, both of whom aid her in her quest to discover the secrets both her parents kept from her.
Clover’s quest soon draws powerful enemies, and her ability to escape disaster again and again hinges on her willingness to put herself at the mercy of the oddities, powered by an unseen force that seems increasingly malevolent as the story continues. The magical adventures Brown devises for Clover also mirror the discovery every child makes that their families and the histories they have been taught are imperfect, and that embracing one’s pain as well as one’s happiness is necessary to becoming a whole person. This is the rare book for young readers that balances philosophy with action, and individual bravery with the need to rely on allies.