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.

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Wildthorn

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The Boneshaker Kate MilfordIt’s 1913, and Natalie Minks has two main goals in life: to make her clockwork airplane work, and to figure out how to ride the unusual bicycle that she’s convinced is the fastest in the world. Her life gets much more complicated when a traveling medicine show comes to town, bringing highly unusual and rather threatening medical men, mysterious remedies, and automatons that don’t need to be wound. Her town isn’t completely helpless—there’s more to several residents than meets the eye, include an old black man who once won a bet with the devil, and Natalie’s mother herself. Nonetheless, the danger is very real, and very close to home.

It’s a beautifully written book, redolent with love of storytelling, folklore, and traditional music. It’s not as tightly-woven as I wanted it to be, though; I had to Google Wilbur Wright’s death in order to figure out when the book was set, and a few times times minor characters were so briefly mentioned or lightly sketched that I had forgotten them by the time they reemerged with some importance later on. Similiarly, there are some interesting, important-seeming elements that are never explained; vagueness that contributes to a creepy, tense atmosphere early in the book is ultimately unsatisfying when clarity never emerges.

Natalie is a spunky tomboy, but not without context—she fits in perfectly with her mildly unconventional family, and if some of the townspeople aren’t overly approving of her choices of overalls instead of dresses, they tolerate her with affection. Her best friend is an effective foil: femme and frivolous, but brave when necessary. Natalie’s close-knit family is lovingly but honestly presented, with its members’ foibles and frustrations, its secret-keeping and its worry about Natalie’s mother, who is increasingly unwell—and Natalie’s obliviousness to her mother’s illness also has a ring of truth.

The Boneshaker is a version of the old Devil at the Crossroads motif, and it plays well with the guilt, desperation, hubris, and determination of the several characters who face the Devil across the campfire.

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The Boneshaker ~ Kate Milford’s The Clockwork Foundry

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.

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

The Shifter Janice Hardy The Healing Wars, Book 1

Nya lives in an occupied city-state, struggling with odd jobs to make ends meet and trying to avoid the occupying soldiers. Her sister, Tali, is managing it easier; there are always jobs at the Healer’s League for a powerful Healer, gifted with the ability to both heal and draw pain from people and transfer it into unobtainium painium pynvium, a mineral valued for its capacity to store pain—and to release it again as a weapon. Nya is differently gifted; she can heal and draw pain, but she can’t dump the pain into pynvium; she can only transfer it to another person. Unfortunately, pynvium is a nonrenewable resource—it gets filled, it gets used as a weapon, it’s useless—and the cause of the wars that led to the occupation of Nya’s home and deaths of her Sorcerer father and Healer mother and grandmother. Now, as before the war, Healer apprentices are disappearing and there are rumors that the Luminary, the head of the Healer’s League, is looking for unusual variants on Healing abilities. When a well-dressed man starts following Nya and her sister joins the ranks of missing apprentices, Nya must break into the League, figure out what’s going on, and save Tali.

It’s really quite good. The world-building is solid and convincingly shades in an outside world while only really exploring Nya’s small corner of it.1 The darker side of healing—all healing; even typical healers experience the pain they draw before they can dump it into pynvium—and economics of pynvium as both medicine and weapon are interesting, even if the Healers’ grasp of triage and scarcity are a bit underdeveloped.2 The characters have distinct personalities with a balance of lighthearted and serious traits and they respond realistically to their shifting situations and the stresses on their society. Life is not easy for any of the characters, and they deal as individuals with the conflict between friendship and loyalty on the one hand, the drive to do what’s best for themselves on the other. Nya’s powers add an extra, difficult layer to the ethical issues she must navigate, and those powers—or at least, her knowledge of them—develop in interesting ways that fit seamlessly into the pattern of the world.

The U.K. title is The Pain Merchants. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: why do the U.K. and Australia get better titles than we do? (Except The Golden Compass, which is a better title than Northern Lights and, y’know, actually fits the His Dark Materials trilogy title.)

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1 Which seems to be in the southern hemisphere—unusual enough to be noteworthy and pretty cool. Nya’s home is in a sufficiently warm climate that she has never seen ice or snow; she only knows about it from her grandmother’s stories of their ancestors’ mountain homeland. When she thinks about leaving her city, she thinks about going south/toward the mountains. Yes, it’s possible that the mountains get snow just because they’re tall and are actually closer to the equator, but a southern hemisphere setting seems more likely.

2 Your main healing tool is a nonrenewable resource, scarcity of which is causing wars. Do you a) stop using it; b) use it to treat serious, life-threatening ailments but let minor bruises and cuts heal themselves; or c) bring all your patients back to full health, including minor bruises and cuts, even if it means not being able to treat as many patients? I see b) as a clear, sensible answer; apparently they think c) is a better idea.

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The Shifter ~ Janice Hardy