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.

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Worldshaker ~ Worldshaker

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Incarceron Catherine FisherFinn is a Prisoner in Incarceron: a giant, self-contained prison, sealed 160 years previously, in which lives the descendants of criminals and a few of the Sapienti, a clan of intellectuals who volunteered to be incarcerated to guide and offer wisdom to the inmates. Incarceron is a nightmare: violent, cutthroat, low on resources, subject to periodic lockdowns, everything taking place under the red glare of Incarceron’s Eyes.

Meanwhile, Outside, Claudia is the daughter of the Warden of Incarceron. She is caught up in court intrigue and an arranged engagement to a rather unpleasant prince. They are trapped by Protocol that requires them to live as if it is an earlier (but frustratingly vague) Era.

Then Finn finds a strange crystal Key bearing the same symbol that is mysteriously tattooed on his wrist; separately, Claudia breaks into her father’s study and finds an identical key.

I found the pacing to be off. I figured out a major reveal very early, and then got a bit bored as the same hint was dropped over and over again. Towards the end I had the opposite problem: things moved a bit too fast and with too many abrupt shifts—yes, they can get out! no, they can’t! Yes, they can! Jerk me around too many times and I will stop caring. Guaranteed. Incarceron didn’t hit that point, but it was a close call.

The world is interesting, though Outside is a bit underdeveloped: I wanted to be able to picture what Outside looks like, with its Era clothing, buildings, and transportation; to understand how their advanced tech fit around the edges of Protocol and the Era, and how their advanced tech is maintained; and, as we’re dealing with an upper-class arranged marriage, what the society’s gender dynamic is like. None of these details are really there. Incarceron is better developed and more creative, with vastly different societies and appearance in different areas. Tidbits of folklore and history are given as epigraphs preceding each chapter, offering tantalizing glimpses into the of depth to the world. Hopefully, the sequel will smooth out some of this volume’s kinks and delve deeper into the world she’s created—inside and outside of Incarceron.

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Incarceron

Leviathan Scott WesterfeldIn a Steampunk Austria-Hungary, Prince Aleksander sets off across Europe in a mechanical walker with his tutor, murderous countrymen on his heals. Meanwhile, in a Darwinpunk England, Deryn disguises herself as a boy to join the Royal Air Service and fly in a living airship—whale meets zeppelin. World War One ensues.

The world is well-developed and creative, especially the Darwinist living technology and the ways the two technology streams have clearly influenced one another. Seriously: it’s half Darwinpunk. That’s just awesome.

The main characters are unsurprising but believable and sympathetic, even if Alek is a bit daft sometimes. The minor characters are entertaining, particularly a lady scientist who is exactly the kind of character we’re programmed to like. And we do, mostly—but it’s no surprise that other characters find her incredibly annoying. The plot moves along briskly, without major twists but with plenty of small surprises and clever details to keep it interesting.

It’s the first in a series and doesn’t try to properly conclude, but it comes to a sensible stopping point; it’s generally a satisfying book, and Westerfeld has seeded plenty of fertile ground to explore in the next one.

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Leviathan ~ Scott Westerfeld

Starclimber by Kenneth Oppel a sequel to Airborn and Skybreaker steampunk alternate history YA novelFollowing Airborn and SkybreakerStarclimber begins with our hero, Matt Cruse, piloting a construction airship² working on the Celestial Tower—the French’s attempt to build a tower to outer space—and trying to sneak as much time as possible with his ill-chaperoned Object of Affection, Kate de Vries. Soon enough, however, Matt and Kate are offered a chance to go to space themselves—in Matt’s case, he can go if he passes a rigorous training progam; in Kate’s case, she can go if she first becomes engaged to a wealthy upper-class eligible bachelor.

Now, if one is to write a steampunk novel about the first expedition to space, dealing heavily with the mechanics of this expedition, one must get one’s physics right. By and large, Oppel does an admirable job. The spaceship has every right to work, the difficulties maneuvering while weightless, all that works. Which makes it all the more jarring when he gets it wrong. One such moment: “Speed was virtually impossible to discern up here. With only the distant earth as a reference point it always seemed we were motionless.” So far, okay; at constant speed in a frictionless environment, that’s true. But then, “Only the pitch of the chip’s rollers told me we were moving at all—and right now, that we were decelerating from a hundred twenty auroknots.”³ Not so much; acceleration and deceleration produce an effect akin to gravity. If they’re decelerating (from downward motion), he should be pressed against the floor. Much more noticeable than something you see by looking out the window. In another case, one of the major crises does not make sense because the physics is not right. This makes me sad.

But if I only read sci-fi in which the science was impeccable, I would not read much sci-fi,4 and this one has a lot going for it. The first two books are lighter on the steampunk/sci-fi; this one flawlessly integrates those elements with the well-built alternate history and maintains their sense of whimsy and discovery. The writing is excellent, moving along at a fast pace through much adventure without losing sight of the emotional lives of his characters. And those characters? Fully human and fleshed-out. Kate is particularly well-done; she is discomfitingly ruthless—this girl would be a Slytherin—but she’s also sympathetic. As an aristocratic woman, she’s privileged but hemmed-in. She freely states her disdain for class distinctions, but demonstrates a thoughtless belief that people will—and ought to—do what she asks them to without question. A suffragette, she believes in fighting for women’s rights, but relies on Daddy to bail her out when she gets in trouble. She has had to fight for her right to go to university and is still fighting to be accepted by the scientific community, but she doesn’t always appreciate the struggles working-class Matt has had to go through to get where he is. She’s a complex, flawed character, and she’s in good company.

All that’s not going to make me forgive the bad physics, per se; but it will make me recommend the book in spite of the bad physics.

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¹ Both of which I read before I started this blog, so I haven’t reviewed them properly. That said, they’re excellent.
² Airship, not airplane; zeppelins are the default air transport in this alternate-history.
³ p. 335.
4Though I prefer it when it’s unapologetically, blatantly wrong to when it tries to be right and fails.

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Starclimber ~ Kenneth Oppel

Mortal Engines Hungry City ChronicleFuturistic steampunk.

We screwed the world up so badly that not only were half the cities destroyed in wars, the rest were being threatened by earthquakes, floods, and other natural disasters caused by global warming, too many nuclear bombs disrupting the Earth’s crust, etc. So they put the cities on giant tracks/wheels/rafts. The cities consume a lot of fuel and raw materials, but the Earth’s pretty well tapped out. So the big cities prey on the little cities which prey on the towns. The Earth has settled down since then, but most of the cities are still moving and exist in a fragile stalemate with the Anti-Traction League of cities that stopped moving.

Tom grew up on a rather pseudo-Victorian London, wanting nothing more than to become a member of the Guild of Historians, and just maybe have an adventure and rescue a beautiful girl. Instead, he’s pushed off the city with a very ugly, scarred girl and learns that adventures are rarely so fun as they’re made out to be.

I’d prefer the premise if they just let it be steampunk, but the futuristic/post-apocalyptic setting made it harder for me to suspend disbelief. The adults are, by and large, fairly shallow, and one of them has a final redemptive moment that’s awfully unbelievable. But the setting is nifty, and it actually takes some pretty big risks.

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Mortal Engines