This is a fast-paced adventure with a truly unique and sympathetic hero — Modo, a heavily deformed child rescued from a traveling freak show by a mysterious benefactor, Mr. Socrates. Modo grows up alone with only a nurse and an instructor for company, training in stealth, acrobatics, fighting, mathematics, history, politics, and he is not allowed to look into a mirror until he is five years old. His reflection horrifies him, but he learns that he has the incredible ability to shift his physical appearance to look like anyone else. This is when he learns he has been training to be a spy for the Permanent Association, a secret organization dedicated to protecting the British Empire. Though it strains him greatly, his shape-shifting ability makes him an ideal spy, if he can learn to use it properly. To see if Modo’s training has prepared him, Mr. Socrates drops him penniless in the middle of London, where he has to survive on his own. Modo, only fourteen years old, uses his training and abilities to start his own detective agency, wearing masks when he is not shape-shifting in order to blend in. Eventually, he is given his first assignment with the Permanent Association, teaming up with another young agent, Octavia Milkweed, and together they uncover a nefarious plan orchestrated by the Clockwork Guild to take over the British government. (I won’t spoil all of the Clockwork Guild’s diabolical plans, except to say that part of it involves a giant clockwork automaton waging war on the city.)
This story takes place in an alternative Victorian London that is smoky and atmospheric, with plenty of inventive steampunk science worked in seamlessly. The plot races along at a breakneck pace, but what I really love about this story is Modo – he is crafty but also compassionate, and his insecurity about his true appearance , especially after he meets Octavia, is heart-breaking.