He’s a spoiled rich kid, she’s a slum rat. More specifically, he—Colbert—is the grandson and heir of the Supreme Commander, meant to lead the Worldshaker, a giant ship that travels on water or land, constantly roving and collecting resources for the betterment of its people. She—Riff—is not considered “people;” she’s just a filthy, locked in the bowels of the ship doing the worst of the grunt work. One thing—an escape—leads to another—an accident—and before you know it, there’s a full scale revolution on the Worldshaker.

Worldshaker is strikingly similar in premise to Mortal Engines, and, like Mortal Engines, disappointed despite my love of both dystopias and steampunk. In this case, the writing is perfectly fine and both Colbert’s stepwise enlightenment and the actions of his sister provided enough interest to keep me reading, but not enough to counteract the overall lack of distinction and two frustrating strange choices.

Strange Choice Number One:
Every single person involved in Colbert’s upper-class, best-available education is completely inane. The people of the Worldshaker have lost awareness and knowledge of their history and they are obsessed with their superiority over the filthies and with cleanliness of mind and body—these are important points to convey for worldbuilding and to forward the plot, but it does not require the education of the ruling classes—through schools and tutors—to be utterly nonsensical and pointless. In fact, it would be much scarier and more believable if the teachers were intelligent and their arguments basically logical; then we could see this as a plausible world, a frightening possibility that maintains itself through manipulation and propaganda. Instead, it’s just inane.

Strange Choice Number Two:
The filthies have one major strategic advantage over the upper decks, and they don’t use it.
Spoilers abound for the rest of this section
The Filthies’ stated purpose on the ship is to keep the boilers going and, by implication, keep the big engines and machines running. That’s why they’re still fed and a sufficient population kept alive. (A small percentage of Filthies are modified into Menials, speechless servants with their brains surgically limited who work on the upper decks). That means they have control over the boilers and the big machines. They could hold the movement, and thus the survival, of the Worldshaker hostage. They could threaten to destroy the engines and strand the ship forever. They could stop the ship and take advantage of everyone freaking out to attack the upper decks. They do none of these things. It’s not even acknowledged that they have this advantage! And then one of the upper decks people threatens to destroy the ship by overheating the boilers and making them explode, and no one, including the leaders of the Filthies, thinks to have them stop stoking the boilers, or dampen them, or open release valve, or a number of other things they could presumably do. Their entire reason for existence is just forgotten.
Enough spoilers! No more below

In general, it’s an okay book with a few interesting characters, but it’s nothing special.

____________________
Worldshaker ~ Worldshaker

Advertisements

Louisa Cosgrove is unusual for a Victorian young woman: passionate about science, aspiring to become one of the first generation of female doctors, and far more interested in her cousin Grace than in any young man she’s ever met. Her name isn’t Lucy Childs and she isn’t insane. And yet, she finds herself taken to an insane asylum, where the apathetic doctor and sadistic matron insist that she is Lucy Childs, and that her instance that she is Louisa Cosgrove is a symptom of her insanity. The only consolation is Eliza, a kind, smiling, pretty young woman who works in the asylum.

It’s a sweet, romantic little book. Louisa’s emotions are realistically raw and painful; her early unfounded hope and her growing sense of betrayal as she realizes that she is not in the asylum through sheer accident are particularly difficult. Eliza’s gentle raising of Louisa’s spirits and energy following a further catastrophe goes slowly but with a sense of the inevitable. Both Louisa’s early passionate crush on Grace and her more mature and balanced esteem for Eliza ring true.

Wildthorn gave me less of a feel for Victorian England than I would have liked. Rather than feeling grounded in its period, it felt like a struggle between twenty-first century mores and late-nineteenth century ones. Though Louisa’s indulgent father is presented as an explanation for her freethinking ways, the ease with which Louisa casts off Victorian ideals is stunning, and though Eliza is in many ways more of a realist and more aware of the difficulties they face, her casual and open acknowledgment of lesbianism makes her a bit too obviously an angel dropped into Louisa’s life to rescue her. The supporting characters, though far less sympathetic than the romantic leads, have more depth and more awareness of the time, and the ending is surprisingly pragmatic—though happy, it resists the urge to become utopian.

___________________
Wildthorn

The Agency Book 1: A Spy in the House A Mary Quinn MysteryThe Agency, Book 1, A Mary Quinn Mystery1

At age twelve, Mary Lang is convicted of housebreaking and sentenced to hang. This is Victorian London; she would hardly be the first nor the last orphan to meet such a fate. Instead, she is abducted on her way to the gallows and brought to the Academy, a school for girls that trains its pupils, many of them charity cases, in the usual subjects and a bonus in ambition and independent thought. Five years later, Mary—now Quinn, having reverted to her mother’s maiden name—is restless, unhappy with any of the traditional feminine options. Her mentors at the Academy provide an unexpected one: to join the Agency, an organization of female spies who take advantage of the general populace’s tendency to overlook and underestimate women. Soon, Mary is undercover in a wealthy merchant’s house, the secondary agent on a case of smuggled South Asian artifacts.

It’s exceedingly fun. The writing is smooth and engaging. Mary is a compelling heroine; accomplished, gutsy, and likable, but also fallible and liable to act on a whim. The case itself doesn’t stand out, but it’s certainly serviceable. The depth of the book comes from the social realities it portrays, from the negotiations and investigations behind society marriages to the limited livelihoods available to widows. The capricious debutante, the invalid mother, and the businessman father aren’t as simple as their tropes imply—and in keeping with the book’s theme, the women are particularly interesting, and particularly underappreciated by the men in their lives. Racism and the lives of Asian sailors in Victorian London are painted with accurately but without sensationalizing, and not only from the majority point of view. The potential romance is fine; didn’t really do much for me, but didn’t detract from the story or frustrate me. It make total sense that these two characters would have the hots for each other and it doesn’t take over the story.

The ending is frustrating, though in ways which are hard to discuss in a spoiler-free way. Suffice it to say Mary does something daft for the sole reason that this will let the author jerk us, and her, around at the end by denying us, and her, shiny knowledge. Which she does. I suspect this knowledge will come out in a future book, but if there’s a way for her to do so without it being an annoying deus ex machina, I don’t see it. Hopefully she has better plot-vision than I do, eh?

We’ll find out, because this book was highly entertaining and I’ll be on the lookout for the second book (coming in August!)

____________________
1Yes, it says both of these on the cover. How many names does a series need?

____________________
A Spy in the House ~ Y.S. Lee

Poison Diaries coverThe Poison Diaries trilogy, Book 1

Jessamine lives alone with her apothocary father in the remains of a monastery, tending their herb and vegetable gardens and keeping house while her father travels the county dosing people with his herbal remedies, searching for any books of horticulture that may have survived the burning of the monasteries, and caring for the locked garden Jessamine is forbidden to enter. Then a raggedy boy known only as Weed is brought to his father, a boy with a mysteriously close relationship with all varieties of plants, a boy suspected of putting something in the tea at a madhouse that made all the inmate sane, and something else in the town well that made the inhabitants crazy.

It’s all rather fascinatingly unhealthy—Jessamine, her relationship with her father, her relationship with Weed. She’s been alone, or alone save a man who looks down on her, for far too long; her first-person narration overflows with eloquent loneliness and desperation for human contact, and her initial reaction to Weed is predicated on her understandable need for a friend. Their romance, though it reeks of inevitability, is interesting; in addition to Jessamine’s issues, Weed is emotionally scarred and is even less accustomed to social interaction, having never really learned to bond with people. They cling to each other, both outsiders unused to being understood.

And then it trades its understated, complex psychology for an overstated, hallucinogenic quest and an abrupt ending.

____________________
The Poison Diaries ~ Maryrose Wood (which has got to be the greatest name for an author of a plant-related book ever).

Curse Dark as GoldThe short version of the summary: Rumpelstiltskin in eighteenth century, early Industrial Revolution England. The medium-length version of the summary: Charlotte and her younger sister Rosie are struggling to keep their family’s mill running and pay of the debts he ran up before he died, and a series of accidents only makes it worse. Sensible Charlotte refuses to listen to the villager’s talk of a curse, even through the mill has a history of accidents and none of the millers has had a son live to inherit the mill.

It’s exceedingly well-written and -characterized. In particular, Charlotte’s romantic relationship is believable, though odd for a modern reader; the pace of courtship is vastly different than what we’re accustomed to, and I think that was more blatant in this than in much historical fiction. Also, refreshingly, the romance is imperfect; they disagree, they shut each other out, they do the wrong thing when trying to do the right thing. They’re human, and we see where they’re coming from and can understand why they make the mistakes they do.

And the villains? Unclear of motivation at the start, bits and pieces fall together until, by the end, they are just as real as the heroine. The characters are also not divided neatly into hero and villain; there are people who are pretty nasty but do no particular harm, and others who are desperate or confused more than malicious, yet manage to do significant harm.

The fantasy/fairy tale elements are woven deftly into the mundane that defines so much of Charlotte’s world. The portrayal of village life in particular, with its belief in curses and hex-marks living quietly alongside the church, brings everything together such that the historical fantasy feels simple and almost self-evident.

I read a copy checked out from the New York Public Library.

____________________
A Curse Dark as Gold ~ Elizabeth C. Bunce

devil's kiss sarwat chaddaBilli doesn’t want to be a Knight Templar. Originally an official Church-sanctioned crusading order, they were officially disbanded and declared heretical in the thirteenth century. Now they exist in secret, a small band of deadly fighters based in London, charged with protecting humans from a standard slew of nasties: vampires, werewolves, and demons possessing dead bodies. Billi’s father, the current Grand Master, insisted that she become one of them, though several of the older Knights objected: Billi’s a girl and, historically, girls were not allowed in the Knights Templar (being a monastic order and all that). At fifteen, Billi is officially a member of the order, but would much rather go on dates and get her homework done on time than spend her nights fighting vampires. She might be slightly happier about it if her father ever showed the slightest pride or care for her well-being, but no such luck.

Angsty teenager + supernatural evils = melodrama.

Also, there is a general problem with many reluctant hero(in)es: we pick up books about, say, modern-day female Knights Templar because we want some badassitude. It’s an added bonus if the badass hero(ine) has a realistic, complex personality and therefore thinks about the reasons (s)he’s kicking ass, has some moral compunctions, and is generally three-dimensional. The bonus turns into a penalty if the thoughtfulness turns into whininess. Alas, the whininess:badassness ratio in Devil’s Kiss is rather high.

In a separate issue, I was left with an unanswered question: why are all the Knights except Billi (full name: Bilqis) named after Arthurian figures (Arthur, Percival, Gwaine, Bors, Balin, Pelleas, Kay, Elaine)? Granted, Devil’s Kiss is set in England, where Arthurian names are much more common, (I have a British cousin named Merlin), but to have all of them named thus begs an explanation. There are, apparently, some modern conspiracy theories connecting the Templars to Arthur¹ (and, of course, the entire book is based on the conspiracy theory that the Templars are still around), but neither these theories nor King Arthur are mentioned in the book, so that doesn’t go far in the way of explanation. Unlike Billi, the others weren’t born into the Templars; they came to it as adults. Did they change their names? Billi didn’t have to change her name when she officially joined. Was there some monumental coincidence? Where there are prophecies, as there are here, I have trouble accepting coincidences. So why the Arthurian names? Why does Billi pull a sword out of a stone? There could be some cool Arthurian connections, but the lack of explanation or exploration left my vastly unsatisfied. Perhaps Chadda will explain in one of the planned sequels, but I doubt my curiosity will be enough to get me to pick them up.

September 2009

____________________
¹ Wikipedia says, “Revisionist historians and conspiracy theorists claim that the Knights Templar stored secret knowledge, linking them to myriad other subjects: the Rosicrucians, the Cathars, the Priory of Sion, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, the Hermetics, the Ebionites, the Rex Deus, lost relics or gospels of James the Just, Mary Magdalene or Jesus (such as a ‘Judas Testament’), King Solomon, Moses, and, ultimately, Hiram Abif and the mystery religion/mysteries of ancient Egypt.”

____________________
The Devil’s Kiss ~ Sarwat Chadda

Nation Terry Pratchett Book CoverIn the 1870s, a tidal wave sweeps through the South Pacific. Mau is the only person left alive of his island Nation, and Daphne is the only person left alive on a British ship, conveniently wrecked on the same island. The two must stay alive, deal with their traumas, figure out what the Rules — of life, or society — are when no one else is alive to obey them, and, eventually, hold together the group of survivors that coalesces as, one by one, those who survived the wave find the ocean.

I haven’t read much Pratchett, but Nation adds fodder to my suspicion that I like his books when they’re silly and am frustrated by them when they’re dealing with serious issues. Nation is dealing with serious issues: grief, trauma, adulthood/life transitions/coming of age, independence, the existence of evil and the crisis of faith that can come after a disaster. This last is probably the main focus of the book, and probably my largest frustration. I felt like I was being hit over the head with Mau’s lost faith. To be fair, Mau probably felt like he was being hit over the head by his sudden disbelief in the gods, or at least their goodness, but it still made me want to skim instead of read. Worse, Mau has supernatural experiences and makes no attempt to reconcile them with his belief or disbelief in the gods. There is no questioning of these experiences, no looking at them in relationship to the existence or nonexistence of gods (or vice versa). Mau’s personality and his ability to doubt the gods is explained by a childhood inquisitiveness, a habit of asking difficult questions, and yet he inexplicably stops asking those questions.

“But wait! You mentioned another main character,” I hear you say. “What about this Daphne?” What about her? She seems to exist to prompt events more than to be a character. Actually, most of the women fit that description; they’re there, they occasionally do important stuff, but really, it’s about men trying to define and control their world. Plot-wise, I can partly excuse this as a reflection of both nineteenth-century British society and the Nation’s society; both are largely homosocial and patriarchal. Characterization-wise, it’s hard to excuse.

And the epilogue has one of the worst cases of Profundity Syndrome I’ve ever seen.

____________________
Nation (Google Books) ~