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Posts Tagged ‘steampunk’

watchmakerAt first, The Watchmaker of Filigree Street (Bloomsbury, digital galley) reads like really good historical fiction, evoking the atmosphere of 1880s London — bustling gaslit streets, boisterous pubs, conversations buzzing about the latest scientific discoveries or the new production from Gilbert & Sullivan. But then as Natasha Pulley’s first novel follows the solitary life of a young telegraph operator at the British Home Office, oddities appear, like the intricate watch that Thaniel Steepleton finds on his bed. Soon after, the watch save his life as it sounds an alarm coinciding with a bomb set by Irish terrorists, and Thaniel goes in search of its mysterious maker, Japanese immigrant Keita Mora. He’s another solitary soul but a mechanical genius when it comes to fashioning timepieces and automata. He’s also strangely prescient.

Thaniel and Mora’s growing friendship is complicated by Mora’s secrets, official suspicion that the watchmaker may be the sought-after bombmaker, and the entrance of Grace Carrow, a strong-minded Oxford physicist in need of a husband to secure her independence and a family inheritance. Questions of love and fate play into the intricate and surprising plot, which may yet hinge on the actions of Mora’s playful mechanical octopus Katsu, who hides in dresser drawers and steals socks. The Watchmaker of Filigree Street is much like Katsu — whimsical, magical, oddly plausible and totally enchanting.

uprootedSpeaking of enchantment, Naomi Novik puts readers under a once-upon-a-time spell with Uprooted (Del Rey/Random House, digital galley), drawing on Polish fairy and folk tales to conjure up a magically medieval world. Readers familiar with Novik’s alternate history Dragons of Temeraire series may be surprised to know that the Dragon of this story is a wizard who once every 10 years — in return for protecting the region from the evil, encroaching Wood — selects a village girl as his serving maid. Narrator Agnieszka, plain and pragmatic, is surprised when she’s picked to accompany the enigmatic Dragon to his isolated tower. Left to her own devices and longing for home, Agnieszka is an initially awkward housekeeper and cook until she develops her true talents and realizes the reason she was chosen. Eventually she becomes part of a perilous quest involving a young prince, a lost queen and the thorny depths of the sentient forest.

Novik’s immersive writing reminds me a bit of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Practical Magic and/or one of Robin McKinley’s fairy tale retellings. Magic.

aliceThe cover of Christina Henry’s Alice (Ace/Penguin, digital galley), with its bloody-eyed rabbit in menswear, is your first clue that this is not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. True, Henry is inspired by the classic, borrowing characters’ names and familiar motifs, but her wonderland — the Old City — is dark and dystopian. When a fire engulfs an insane asylum, an amnesiac Alice and fellow patient Hatcher escape, but so does the ravenous, flying Jabberwocky. The fugitive pair, seeking shelter and then revenge, follow the maze-like streets of the crumbling city, its sectors presided over by the overlords known as Rabbit, Caterpillar, Walrus and Cheshire. Crime is commonplace, from thievery to human trafficking, and evil is afoot and aloft. This is midnight-dark fantasy, occasionally confusing and not for the squeamish. Henry leaves enough threads hanging to spin a sequel. I’d read it.

inkandboneLibrarians are both guardians of knowledge and brave warriors in Rachel Caine’s Ink and Bone: The Great Library (NAL/Penguin, digital galley), a rousing YA action-adventure set in a near future where “knowledge is power.”  The great Library of Alexandria has survived the ages and its librarians rule the world by strictly controlling access to all original books. The librarians’ alchemy allows regular folk to read “mirror” versions of select volumes on blank tablets, but the ownership of real texts is forbidden, and the printing press is unknown. A thriving book-smuggling trade for collectors is threatened both by tyrannical librarians and their fearsome automata, as well as by the heretical “burners” who destroy books as an act of rebellion. At 16, Jess Brightwell is an experienced thief and smuggler in London who loves reading real books, and whose father wants him to become a spy among the librarians. But first he must pass the entrance exams and survive the training at Alexandria. So, it’s Harry Potter meets The Book Thief meets young Indiana Jones, sort of.

Caine puts her experience as a successful series writer to good use, creating vibrant — if somewhat — stock characters in her steampunk-studded world. Jess’s classmates include a brilliant Arab scholar, a mean-minded Italian playboy, a prickly Welsh girl and a talented German inventor. Their stern teacher has secrets of his own, some of which are revealed when the students are sent to rescue a cache of ancient books in the library at Oxford, a city caught up in a brutish war. (Shades of Henry V). Surprises await, as do romance and betrayal. But we have to wait until next summer for the next book. Ah, for a little alchemy to make it appear sooner.

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madnessSometimes I think I want to go back to school. Not ordinary school-school but someplace exotic, like Hogwarts or Brakebills.

Wexford, the London school in Maureen Johnson’s The Madness Underneath (Penguin Young Readers, digital galley), isn’t all that unusual unless you are 17-year-old Louisiana teen Rory Devereaux. As a new student at Wexford in 2011’s The Name of the Star, Rory’s near-death choking experience left her with the ability to see ghosts. And that led to some rousing ghostbusting adventures with the “Shades of London,” a super-secret trio of young police officers on the trail of a ghostly Jack the Ripper copycat.

In the entertaining new book, Rory is still recovering from her Ripper encounter when she returns to Wexford. The Shades — serious Stephen, enigmatic Callum and gregarious Boo — need her help, especially after Rory discovers that Wexford is built atop the graveyard of Bedlam, the old insane asylum. But there also are other mysterious forces who want Rory’s particular talents, which were enhanced by her last brush with death.

Rory again narrates with verve as Johnson expertly combines the ordinary problems of school (exams, boyfriends, roommates) with the extraordinary (murder, secrets, ghosts). But doesn’t Johnson know it’s not nice to leave readers hanging by their fingernails from such a steep cliff?!

etiquetteManners are the thing in Gail Carriger’s first book for teens, Etiquette and Espionage (Little, Brown Young Readers, purchased e-book), set in the steampunk fantasy England of her Parasol Protectorate adult series. As a “covert recruit” at Mademoiselle Geraldine’s Finishing School for Young Ladies of Quality, 14-year old Sophronia and her classmates have lessons in dancing, drawing, music, dress and modern languages, as well as “the fine arts of death, diversion, and the modern weaponries.” Swords can get caught in skirts, which is why the student assassins-to-be use knives even as they practice advanced eyelash-fluttering.  The school itself is located in huge, interlaced dirigibles floating above the moors, and the professors include a vain vampire and a roguish werewolf.

You can tell Carriger had a blast (and tongue firmly in cheek) coming up with the quasi-Victorian details, outrageous names and over-the-top hi-jinks. Both clever and silly, this genre-bending romp involves agile Sophronia and her sidekicks, including a “mechanical” steam-powered dog, fighting off “flywaymen” for possession of a prototype allowing for better communication through the ether. It’s billed as “Finishing School — Book the First” so the ending is happily not the finish.

nightmareSixteen-year-old Destiny “Dusty” Everhart is a relatively new student at Arkwell Academy in Mindee Arnett’s The Nightmare Affair (TOR Teen, purchased e-book). And she’s having a rough time at this boarding school for magickind, being the lone Nightmare among the cliques of witches, sirens, faeries, etc. But her ability to feed off others’ dreams also earns her a certain reputation, although not as scandalous as that of her estranged mother. But that could change now that The Will, the magickind governing regime, demands that she partner with the handsome human Eli Booker to predict the future.

Arnett’s world-building is engaging, especially the classifications and characteristics of magickind, but the plot is a predictable mash-up of high-school coming-of-age and  Arthurian mythology. Here’s hoping the next entry in the Arkwell Academy series offers more challenge.

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Paranormal is the new normal, especially in teen fiction. Ask teens if they’ve read any good books lately, and nine times out of 10, they’ll name a fantasy. Make that 10 out of 10. For this year’s recent Teen Read Week, 9,000 teens across the country voted at their local libraries for the 2011 Teens’ Top Ten, http://tinyurl.com/3hwnpy Steampunk, dystopia, apocalypse nigh. Vampires, zombies, aliens and angels. Many, many angels.

Karou is the girl with blue hair, the girl raised by demons, the girl who falls in love with an angel. She is also  the title character of Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone, a scintillating mix of myth and magic, religion and romance.

In the storybook setting of 21st-century Prague, Karou is an art student who occasionally puzzles her best friend with unexplained absences and detailed drawings of fantastic creatures. But how to explain her errands for the chimaera Brimstone, who looks like a monster and who trades in wishes and teeth? It’s what Karou has always known until enigmatic handprints start appearing on the portals to “Elsewhere,” and she is attacked in Marrakesh by a beautiful man with blazing eyes. He is the seraph Akiva, and he and Karou soon learn their destinies are joined by a 1,000-year-old war between angels and demons.

Taylor nicely tempers the exotic and epic with teen angst and snark. Karou may discover she has secret powers, but she still is a teenager with a cell phone and boyfriend trouble. The book doesn’t end so much as stop, leaving readers longing for the next in the series.

Maggie Stiefvater’s The Scorpio Races is a dark horse tale. On the island of Thisby, which is rural and Gaelic, riders risk their lives every fall riding fierce water horses on a strip of beach. The stallions are predatory carnivores who pluck people off of horses and boats, drowning them in the sea.

At 19, Sean Kendrick is a Scorpio Race veteran and winner. This year he’s racing for the right to buy the red stallion Corr. Young Puck Connelly decides to race her land mare for the prize money she and her orphaned brothers desperately need. Both know they are just as likely to die as to win as they take turns narrating chapters.

Stiefvater’s atmospheric, present-tense story fairly gallops along. The water horses rise realistically from the waves, and the race itself is harrowing. Readers win.

Open Book: I bought the e-book versions of both Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor (Little, Brown) and The Scorpio Races by Maggie Stiefvater (Scholastic). I’m also about halfway through a digital galley of Lia Habel’s first novel Dearly, Departed (Random House via NetGalley), an inventive steampunk-zombie hybrid slowed by some clunky writing. But I want to find out what happens to New Victorian teen Nora Dearly and the oddly attractive and very undead soldier Bram Griswold.

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