Nabbed by waif-catchers in the alley where he spends his days sniffing bread and dreaming of floury loafs, Oy Yew is dragged in front of the wiry-haired Mrs Rutheday who sets him to work at bench 54. Oy meets Linnet Pale, a colour-drained girl who becomes his first friend. But assembling unknown items intended for nameless people is not destined to be his lot for long and the new boy is soon recognized as a perfect specimen for Duldred Hall.
Peopled with strangely-named characters like Alas Ringworm, Raymun, Mrs Midden and the hateful Master Jeopardine, the waifs of Duldred are assigned duties around various parts of the big house (‘Drains’, ‘Ceilings’, ‘Stairs’ etc), and expected to perform their tedious obligations out of sight of the Master and his upservants. Oy learns about the strange hierarchy of the place, the peculiar regularity of ‘accidents’ and the habitual ‘measuring’ routine where children must reach the perfect height of 5 thighs 10 oggits in order to escape the everyday graft of the Hall. But if escape is so wonderful, why are the details kept under lock and key? And what strange secrets are hidden in Rook’s Parlour and the Bone Room? Gradually, with Oy’s help, the waifs begin to educate themselves and their discoveries lead to revelations that will change their lives forever.
Ana Salote’s first book in ‘The Waifs of Duldred’ trilogy is, she says, a crossover fantasy for ages 9 to 90, and I can well believe it. The world she creates is original and yet familiar, with its wonderfully Dickensesque settings and a host of intriguing characters. I’ll definitely be looking out for the next book in the series.