the Little Red Reviewer

A Peculiar Peril, by Jeff Vandermeer

Posted on: February 21, 2021


I love absurdity.  A flying angry bear,  talking animals, weird creatures, intelligent fungi, guns that shoot bears (the bullets are bears. Live bears come out of the gun when you pull the trigger!). Absurdity, I say bring it!


I’d been hearing about Vandermeer’s A Peculiar Peril for a while now, and I knew nearly nothing about it. I knew that it had something to do with Thackery T Lambshead, I knew it had Vandermeer’s brand of weirdness, and reading the back cover copy made me laugh out loud, so we were off to a good start!  If you mashed up Mieville’s Perdido Street Station with a Neil Gaiman,  you might end up with something on the same plane as A Peculiar Peril.  

The book has an wryly funny, if tragic beginning.  Young Jonathan Lambshead is officially now an orphan. His mother disappeared in the Alps and is presumed dead, and his grandfather Dr. Lambshead has passed away. The novel opens with Jonathan arriving at his grandfather’s mansion and no one is there to greet him.  Through letters and a phone call (delivered through a phone that isn’t plugged in), Jonathan learns that if he can only organize and catalog his grandfather’s collectables, he will inherit all!  Well, It’s a good thing Jonathan invited his best friends Rack and Danny to help him. (Rack and Danny are brother and sister, “Danny” is short for Danielle, “Rack” is short for something much longer)


If you thought this was to be another adventure through Dr Thackery T Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities. . . you’d be wrong. But that’s ok!   By way of a strange map, an even stranger marmot, and yet stranger doors that go elsewhere, Jonathan, Rack, and Danny find themselves in an alternate Earth called Aurora, where Napoleon is a literal talking head,  Aleister Crowley hasn’t realized he’s not in control, monsters abound, animals talk, shadows do as they please, and thanks to one particular bridge, you’ll be scared of puffins for the rest of your life. 


All Jonathan wants is to understand what the hell is going on.  Why does he need to find the Golden Sphere? What is he supposed to do when he finds it? Why do people seem to talk in code whenever he’s around? Is Danny hiding something from him? What the heck is the Chateau Peppermint Blonkers (I LOVE that absurd name, don’t you?), and who can he trust? 


This book truly is absurdity piled on top of absurdity, and mostly in a good way. Let’s start with Aleister Crowley, because this poor guy is just so apeshit cray cray.  Vandermeer’s Crowley rules Aurora with an iron fist, a creeptastic familiar named Wretch, and increasingly nonsensical pronouncements involving household trash and rabid animals. Or well, Crowley thinks he runs the show, but as the story progresses we learn more about how Wretch is, well, keeping Crowley under control. One of Crowley’s advisors is Napoleon’s head. Just his head. And when Napoleon gets to chatty, Crowley puts him up on a tall pedestal where no one can see or hear him. There’s also a mechanical elephant with an escape hatch under its tail, involving a conversation that screams to be read out loud in your best Monty Python voice. 

There’s a hench person? Monster?  Assassin? I don’t know what exactly she is, but her name is Ruth Less, and I would happily read an entire book about her.  We’re supposed to view her as a monster, but the Comet Man (sung to the tune of Rocket Man, of course) thinks she’s ok, and she seems to just want to save things and save people in her pouch, and she’s so adorably curious about how the world works! Sure, she gets hungry from time to time, but doesn’t everyone? I want to know where she came from, and how her pouch works, and what will her children do? I get why people are so scared of her, I mean she basically is a demogorgon on steroids.  


Rack and Danny were super fun side characters. I loved the brother and sister banter and snark between them. Danny is the protector of Rack’s dark secrets. How’s Rack gonna feel, when he realizes Danny has kept secrets from him?  These two were just great!


I’m sad to report, that the blandest part of A Peculiar Peril was Jonathan Lambshead, and what exactly he’s gotten himself involved with.  Jonathan answers the phone, unravels puzzles and clueless, and runs when being chased.  He’d love to know what the hell is going on, where he can be safe. As I neared the end of the novel, I too wondered what the hell was going on, and if anyone was ever going to explain anything to Jonathan or to me.   The novel starts out with Dr. Lambshead’s cabinet of curiosities, and Jonathan being told to start going through everything.  But with Crowley taking over Aurora, shadows detaching themselves,  buildings disappearing  and reappearing as they please, and absolute monsters on the loose, does anything that physically exists in Lambshead’s mansion back on our Earth actually matter? 


I was so enthralled with all the through-the-looking glass absurdity, it was almost easy to forget that this story is about Jonathan and his destiny.


So yes, lots of madcap absurdity and imaginative creatures and intensely fun dialog and some scenes that were nail bitingly terrifying (omg, the puffins!), Crowley, Napoleon’s head, the Speck, Wretch, Jules Verne being trapped in a giant earthworm machine that’s powered by tiny earthworms, Charlemagne being resurrected as a leaf/moth thing, the Comet Man, the Golden Sphere being an absolute jackass, and RUTH LESS!   


Jonathan was the cupcake, and everything else was the frosting.  The frosting was the best part of this book. And the cupcake itself? Unfortunately kinda meh. but I’ll be dreaming of that frosting for months. Look, the book wasn’t bad, ok? I was tons of fun. I guess I was just disappointed/confused that it was made out to be all about Jonathan, and all about all the crap in Thackery’s mansion, and the book is like 3% that.   The book also  felt way, way too long. 600+ pages of running and chasing and banter.  . .   and then the world’s fastest wrap up and the end.

What’s next in my Vandermeer line up you ask?  I mights just go back and read that anthology from a while back, The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities. And you know what? I’m gonna kick myself if I find a map of Aurora in that anthology. Or that tiki hut. Or a stuffed puffin.  Or a black blob that looks like a cat mixed with a bat mixed with a rat, but isn’t any of those things.  Ah, the bear gun

8 Responses to "A Peculiar Peril, by Jeff Vandermeer"

Sounds like you had a great time with this one! I have my doubts whether I should pick it up. Might try Dead Astronauts first.

Liked by 1 person

Is Dead Astronauts in the same world as Borne, do you know?

I had a great time with large portions of A Peculiar Peril.


Yes it is a companion novel to Borne. I believe there was a garden with 3 dead astronauts in Borne? This is their story.

Liked by 1 person

l loved Borne, so I definitely need to read Dead Astronauts!

Liked by 1 person

I heard that it is exceedingly weird, but in a different way from A Peculiar Peril.

Liked by 1 person

Hm, not sure if that isn‘t too absurd for me! I still haven‘t read Borne either. With which of his books should I start?


Borne was fantastic. If you’re interested in post apocalyptic fiction that’s weird, start with Borne. if you want something very near future and you don’t mind tons of questions with no answers, start with Annihilation. If fantasy is more your thing, I recommend Shriek: an Afterword, or the short story collection City of Saints and Madmen.

Liked by 1 person

In that case probably Borne. I‘ve seen the movie Annihilation already. That always takes away some of the fun for the book.


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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