In Hollow City, Ransom Riggs’ sequel to his hugely popular Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, a lot happens and nothing happens. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say a lot happens and none of it matters. It is, above all, a tale of high adventure, the titular odd kids fleeing across Wales to London, a fearsome posse of creatures called wights hot on their heels. They encounter gypsies and talking dogs and survive Nazi bombs and kill many-tongued creepy-crawlies and it’s all irrelevant. Because, see, this is the second book in a trilogy, and if there’s one thing that often marks second books, it’s that they’re placeholders. The first book has to do a lot of heavy lifting what with all the exposition-establishing and character-introducing and world-building. Miss Peregrine does this brilliantly, bringing us into the world of the peculiar through Jacob, a teenager who discovers time traveling “loops,” and in those loops he finds children with mysterious powers and teachers who shapeshift into birds. There’s a Neil Gaiman-esque fairy tale quality to the first book, and the vintage photographs scattered throughout it help drag this story of the supernatural into the real world. I think it’s kind of a stupendous feat. Third books, by contrast, have purpose because they’re all about resolving conflicts and tying up loose ends. They’re driving things home, so there’s usually a sense of momentum and intentionality.
But those second books. They’re all about getting from Point A to Point C, which means Point B, in many ways, involves running in place. That’s absolutely true of Hollow City. It’s action-packed, but because the characters all end up more or less where they started – in crisis – there’s a weird stasis to the proceedings. It’s action that mainly serves to maneuver the playing pieces where they need to be for the third book, so in some ways the plot of the second book doesn’t even matter. The characters do some things and go some places and overcome some challenges, and, until the last twenty pages, none of it really amounts to anything.
That’s not to say it isn’t entertaining. Quests, told well, will almost always be worth the read. And the children certainly have a lot on their plate. At the start of the book . . .
and these are spoilers, I guess, if you have yet to read the first book in the series
. . . Miss Peregrine, the headmistress and nominal matriarch for all these power-wielding children, has been rescued from the wights who kidnapped her, only she’s trapped in her bird form. The children know they must find a way to help her regain her humanity, and that’s the quest the book is concerned with. It takes them from Wales to London in 1940, and along the way they meet the talking dogs and gypsies and assorted other creatures – good and bad – that make up the spine of the book. It’s never less than interesting, but I couldn’t quite escape the feeling that Hollow City was just marking time. Even though the wights and the creepy-crawlies (called hollowghasts) are a constant danger, it never really felt like anything was at stake, and because the challenges they faced were just hurdles to clear on their way to the book’s climax, nothing ever seemed particularly consequential.
Like I said, a lot of stuff happens, and none of it matters.
Until the end. In the closing pages we get an important revelation about Miss Peregrine and, more importantly, Jacob discovers something about the nature of his own powers that promises exciting things for the third book. But in a lot of ways it’s a case of too little too late. I can’t complain that much about a book that was generally pretty entertaining, but it’s also sort of a bummer to feel like I just spent 400 pages on the literary equivalent of a treadmill.
Underworld – Second Toughest in the Infants (1996)