The winners of the Cybils were announced yesterday and the winner of the award for the category that I was judging, Elementary and Middle Grade Speculative Fiction, is…The Fog Diver by Joel Ross. Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reviewing all the other titles on the shortlist, except Mars Evacuees, as I’ve already written about that.
This fun, action-packed middle grade steam-punky dystopia is set in a future where a Fog toxic only to humans covers the Earth. The few remaining people live above the Fog in the rigidly economically stratified Rooftop, and impoverished salvage crews take their rickety airships out, sending down ‘tether boys’ through the Fog to scavenge from now empty houses. One such crew, Hazel, Chess, Bea and Swedish, are desperate to find something valuable as their guardian has fallen ill with fogsickness.
The crew is a created family, scooped up from the slums and the streets by Mrs. E. 13 year-old Chess, the narrator, has a mysterious affinity with the Fog; dark-skinned Hazel is the captain and she has the other kids’ trust and confidence as she always has a plan; Swedish is the muscle with a heart of gold; and gearhead Bea is “Our kid sister, with short red hair, big green eyes, and smears of grease on her face.” The support characters are a little slight – Kodoc is an evil villain, Vidious wears a cape and calls everyone ‘poppet’ (though that made me smile) – but work well enough to serve the plot.
There is some terrific wordplay as the crew harks back to the old times: “May the horse be with you,” a constellation called Oprah, bees that can spell, and a running gag about the word ‘garbo’. I like that these are perfectly pitched for the intended reader – clever and gettable.
Some serious issues are threaded into the drama: The origins of the Fog are connected with human exploitation of the Earth, and there are no safety nets (physical or metaphorical) for the have-nots of Rooftop. But Ross blends these into the story and the action without any didacticism and with a light touch.
Although initially there is some fairly clumsy information dumping to get the world and the characters established, even this is woven in with action scenes. And once the well-structured and well-paced plot really takes off, with all the pieces clicking gratifyingly into each other, it is a giddy ride to the satisfying conclusion, with plenty of untied threads left ready for the sequel due out in May.