This is the fantastic story of Henri Bell, a near-orphan who in 1890 is sent to live with his ancient great-aunt and her extensive button collection. One rainy afternoon, Henri strikes up a conversation with a friendly fly on the windowsill and discovers he possesses the astounding ability to speak with insects. Thus commences an epic journey for Henri as he manages a flea circus, commands an army of beetles, and ultimately sets out to British Malaya to find the mythical giant insect known as Goliathus hercules. Along the way he makes friends both insect and human, and undergoes a strange transformation of his own. Artist Jennifer Angus, known for her Victorian-inspired exhibits of insect specimens, brings her distinctive sensibility to the pages of her first novel.
Okay, let me open this review honestly: this book reads like a novel from a debut author. The writing feels impersonal and rushed, and a lot of the interactions between characters feel unreal and/or forced. I was nervous when I started reading Henri’s (whose name is pronounced in the English way “Henry”) story because of this, but I really started to enjoy reading about his time in the circus, his budding friendship with Robin the clown, and his experiences talking to insects. This is a new concept that I haven’t encountered before in all my supernatural YA reading, and it was pretty cool. The villain of the tale, Mrs. Black, is really quite scary, and the Victorian background is always something I’m interested in. Henri’s father is sent to British Malaya on a vague assignment, and when communication from him goes silent for a year, Henri’s mother sends him to live with his great-aunt Georgie in America, while his mother goes off in search of Henri’s father. Georgie can speak to insects too, but she doesn’t tell Henri this straight out. We learn this later, after Henri leaves to manage the flea circus.
He launches the fleas to fame and makes friends with Robin, but something sinister is lurking, and Henri needs to discover the source while also protecting his insect friends. The source is a character who has been around from the beginning, and while investigating her, Henri discovers something very distressing about his father. And after this point, I got used to the abrupt way this story is written. It’s simple and quick and sometimes awkward, but it’s middle-grade, and the concept is really interesting. I started to really like Robin and Billy, the apprentice lion tamer, and even Maestro Antonio. The mystery kept me guessing, because we only had as much info as Henri had. I ended up finding myself more engrossed than I thought I would.