Here is a novel that, in the overpopulated masses of self-published ebooks, manages to stand a head taller than the rest, proudly embracing every facet of its idiosyncratic identity. Just read this book’s blurb on Amazon—I dare you—and then try to tell me it doesn’t sound delightfully wacky if totally absurd. I suppose what you see is in this case what you get, considering that “delightfully wacky” and “totally absurd” are probably some of the most appropriate phrases that could be employed in an honest description of The Miseries of Mister Sparrows by Matthew Timmins.
The Concept: B-
The premise of Miseries was a little off-putting to me at first because the book is strangely light on plot. It took a while for me to arrive at the mystery that would later keep me turning pages and even after that happened, the book seemed to crawl along at its own casual pace before bringing me to my long-awaited conclusion at the moment it felt best.
But, strangely, though it can hardly be classified as a fantasy novel, it makes up what it lacks in plot with relentlessly witty, impossibly detailed world-building. Although I really wanted to know what was in the box that poor law clerk Robin Sparrows was tasked to deliver to the mysterious traitor Kermit J. Tarnish, after a while I didn’t mind taking a breather to read about another strange neighborhood of Claudon and all the varied characters that populated it. And I was both amused and enthralled by the history of the war with the Crocodons.
The Execution: A-
The Miseries of Mister Sparrows isn’t really plot-driven or character-driven, but it works—although it very easily might not have. And I have to give some serious kudos to the author for taking that kind of risk and succeeding.
It hits a few road blocks along the way. For example, I was particularly baffled by one chapter relatively early on that told a tangential story branching off from one minor event. This story was later revealed to be more relevant than I thought, but the unexpected if amusing detour was quite puzzling at the time.
But this was more than counteracted by the rich characters, the clever alternate histories, the imaginative settings, and a handful of scenes that were downright hilarious. The depiction of poor Robin’s epic duel with a belligerent pigeon was probably one of my favorite moments from the whole book.
The Writer’s Voice: A+
Two of the Amazon reviews so far have employed the term “Dickensian” to describe this charming little tome. There’s a pretty good reason for that. It’s set in some version of reality closely approximating Victorian England, its humble and indigent protagonist suffers greatly and spends a lot of time in lower-class, poverty-stricken neighborhoods, and so many of the characters have names so amusing they surely must have been made up. A few similarities to the classic British wordsmith aside, Timmins’s greatest strengths lie in his understated wit and his erudite yet fluid diction.
Although there are relatively few moments that could be fairly termed as jokes, the prose is nonetheless saturated with an indirect sort of comedy and a sense of tongue-in-cheek mockery. The descriptions of the different settings and characters, the various speech patterns, and the inner thoughts of our miserable hero are all amusing. The book may not be laugh-out-loud funny most of the time and its sense of humor probably wouldn’t translate well into a movie or a sitcom, but every page contains something to smile at.
Much of that muted hilarity is made possible by Timmins’s unique phrasing. He employs a lot of unusual and relatively obscure terms with casual ease. I obviously am not familiar with every word in the English language, but I was surprised by how many definitions I had to look up as I read. However, rather than sounding snobby or ostentatious, these words feel like they belong where they are and give the impression that there could have been no worthy substitutes. They fit the cadence of the sentences around them, they breathe a freshness into the prose, and they help enhance some of the subtler humor. It’s been a long while since I read a book that gave the impression that its author had labored thoughtfully over the precise phrasing of every single paragraph quite this much.
The X-Factor: B-
With The Miseries of Mister Sparrows, just about every factor is the X-Factor. The writing, the plot, the structure, the universe, the humor, and the characters are all quirky and, for better or for worse, unique. Unfortunately, the only thing that really stands apart from all of that is the pacing. The story advanced sluggishly, and although it picked up near the end and many of the once irrelevant aspects were tied into the central plot at some point, the first half passed slowly, save for a few engaging scenes of excitement.
Conclusion—or Rather, Resolution: A
Of all the indie books I’ve read (or tried to read) this year, this one is exceptional, paired with only The Court of Crusty Killings as a contender for my favorite. Though it has its share of little blemishes, The Miseries of Mister Sparrows is imaginative, charmingly idiosyncratic, and subtly hilarious. It’s especially impressive for a first novel and I certainly hope that Mr. Timmins is already hard at work on his next idea.