Foundling - D M Cornish
Rossamünd Bookchild, a boy with a girl's name. Abandoned as an infant at Madam Opera's Estimable Marine Society for Foundling Boys and Girls (a surprisingly non-evil orphanage), he has grown up hoping to one day join the Navy, or maybe even become a heroic chemist, brewing explosive concoctions to protect humanity from the monsters. The world outside the human cities is teeming with beasts and bogles of all kinds, who lurk in the woods and wastes and prey on unwary travellers. However, when he is finally apprenticed, it is for neither of these jobs - he is hired as a trainee lamplighter, a prospect that promises a lifetime of tedium. Travelling downriver to his new place of employment, he somehow goes astray, and quickly finds that it's not just the monsters he needs to beware of...
Pitched at young adults and older children, the world of Foundling is almost absurdly rich and detailed. Writer and illustrator Cornish has taken the Tolkien route with his creation, plotting out maps and histories and technologies long before coming up with a story to use them in, and the world is entirely believable but full of intriguing strangeness. The distant sea, for example, is not salt but caustic vinegar; the fantasy-Victorian setting teems with steampunky contraptions of wood and brass; there are hints of a centuries-old battle against the monsters that is not as black-and-white as it first seems. Even the monster-fightin' basics have an original twist - no heroes with swords here; humanity's champions are the scientists who brew the monster-repellents, and other, stranger humans who have altered their body chemistry to (for example) emit lightning. Rossamünd's journey only covers a small fraction of the world, but you can just tell that there's a whole lot more of it out there, from barricaded cities to monster-haunted wastes.
The story itself is pretty straightforward - Foundling is the first part of the Monster Blood Tattoo trilogy, the remaining parts of which are Lamplighter and Factotum, so it looks likely that Rossamünd's career will be detailed out from start to finish as the series progresses. There are a few hints that Our Hero is somehow Speshul (like all other fantasy orphans, especially those of unknown parentage) which is a little disappointing, but the odd plot cliché is certainly not enough to detract from the world's original character and the nice moral ambiguity of the setting. Lamplighter comes out in paperback this May, and I'll certainly be picking it up.