Whew! No steampunk ever, and now two in two months. Arthur Slade's The Hunchback Assignments starts out icky (involving animal experimentation), but once we meet our hero, the hunchback, the story picks up and takes over. Just warning you, it gets icky again (this time children are the experimented upon), but most kids are made of stronger stuff than I. (I think listening to stuff like that is so much uglier than reading about it since while this was on the mp3 player, I was reading a Dennis Lehane novel [just want to clarify that I was not listening and reading simultaneously] chock full of violence and mayhem. Ho hum.)
Mr. Socrates, a proper Victorian gentlemen, is a member of the secret Permanent Association. He has a vast network of spies throughout England charged with keeping the nation secure. His spies have unearthed word about a deformed infant who can change shape at will. Mr. Socrates locates the child and adopts it, naming him Modo (see Quasimodo?). He educates and trains Modo for espionage, but doesn't allow him to see himself and keeps all but a select few from seeing him as well. When Modo is 14, he takes him to London and abandons him. Modo quickly learns to fend for himself and even hangs out a discreet shingle offering his services while waiting for further instructions from Mr. Socrates.
Meanwhile, that evil scientist doing those animal experiments, Dr. Cornelius Hyde (see Mr. Hyde?) has found support from the Clockwork Guild and is building ... well, I don't want to give it away. Something that involves a grandson of Queen Victoria, the nefarious use of child labor, and that will, no doubt, lead to world domination. Mr. Socrates sends another of his agents, the orphaned Octavia Milkweed, to Modo with a mission. Soon, Modo and Tavia are embarked on the assignment of their lives. Along with everything else, though, Modo can't let the lovely Tavia see him in his true form. Mr. Socrates has told him he's ugly, and he fears her horror at his appearance.
A new-to-me narrator, Jayne Entwistle, reads this book. She's got a pleasing voice, along with an emotional feel for the story that makes listening entertaining and suspenseful. She never gets so wrapped up in the action of the story that she forgets to sustain the characters. Entwistle creates a broad variety of characters from all walks of English life -- including an extremely scary woman with a metal hand named Haakensdottir, an East Indian martial arts instructor, an orphan boy named Oppie, the members of the Young Londoners Exploratory Club, and the urbane Mr. Socrates. Her voices for Modo and Tavia are especially charming -- Tavia is all spunk and fire, while Modo's shyness and innocence is pleasingly embodied in Entwistle's husky voice.
It looks like there's a sequel coming shortly, The Dark Deeps (the Canadian cover is posted on Arthur Slade's blog), but my favorite Slade book remains Dust. It just felt so original to me when I first read it, and it resonated again upon rereading several years later.