Tag Archives: alternate history

Polaris by Michael Northrop

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Polaris by Michael Northrop
Scholastic, October 2017

Mr Northrop has always been good at fast-paced adventures, and he turns that talent to a new genre – one he calls “historical science fiction.” It’s a well-plotted thrill ride with some excellent surprises that will appeal to middle grade lovers of speculative fiction with a side of horror.

On an 1830’s scientific expedition to Brazil, the captain and a handful of the crew of the Polaris accompany a botanist into a jungle inlet. A week later, only half of them return and there is sinister mystery surrounding what they discovered. A mutiny ensues, leaving just six boys on the ship and they decide to sail back it to the US. It gradually emerges that there is someone or something on board with them and it is not friendly.

The characters are roughly drawn but serviceable for keeping the plot moving along. We see the narrative through the eyes of three of them – Owen, the captain’s nephew, Manny, a Spanish boy with a secret, and Henry the botanist’s assistant. There are tensions between them pivoting on class, science, and nationality.

The novel successfully combines historical sailing adventure and hold your breath creeping around below decks, with a dash of 19th century science sprinkled in. It rattles along and sweeps to a thrilling climax with a Jurassic Park-like question mark at the end. As with Surrounded by Sharks, Mr Northrop knows what to do to keep a reluctant reader engaged and the historical setting is far enough in the background so it doesn’t to get in the way.

Thanks to Scholastic and Netgalley for the digital review copy

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The Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud

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creeping-shadowThe Creeping Shadow by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood & Co. Book 4
Disney Hyperion, 2015

This middle grade series just keeps getting better. Lucy Carlyle is now out fighting ghosts on her own, away from the comfort and protection of Lockwood and Co. She’s doing alright, after all she has the Bartimaeus-style snarky skull to keep her company, and she’s making a living as a freelancer. But, and you’ll have noticed the name of the series, she’s soon back happily working with charismatic Anthony Lockwood, nerdy George Cubbins, and even last book’s newcomer and love rival, the elegant Holly Munro.

There is an overarching grand conspiracy going on, that seems to revolve around the two original agencies founded to solve the Problem, Fittes and Rotwell, and once again, Lockwood and Co. is all wrapped up in it. This time it starts when Lucy discovers that someone is stealing powerful Sources which should be destroyed, and leads to a very haunted village.

Stroud does a magnificent job of keeping this series fresh, building on the familiar characters and world, as well as introducing new elements. Coming into the familiar mix of humor, chills, and mystery is a more somber note, a trepidatious twang of foreboding: Lockwood’s dark side and live fast die young attitude comes more into focus, even as he gets closer to Lucy.

Each novel in this series can stand alone, with an episodic structure that builds to a dramatic climax. But the reader would be best to start at the beginning to get the full rich umami of the stew that the author keeps cooking up for us.

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The Lost Compass by Joel Ross

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lost-compassThe Lost Compass by Joel Ross
Fog Diver; Bk. 2
HarperCollins, 2016.

This satisfying sequel to the Cybil-winning middle grade adventure The Fog Diver (2015), picks up immediately where the previous book left off. Following a brief introduction to get the reader up to speed the reader is plunged straight back into the post-apocalyptic world in which the Earth is covered by a sentient Fog made of nanites that are toxic to humans, and people can only survive on mountain tops and in the air above the Fog.

Chess, the fog diver, and his crew have escaped the economically stratified Rooftop and arrived at idyllic and more equitable Port Oro, where they discover that the only way to save the world from villainous Kodoc is for Chess to dive down again to find the mysterious Compass which controls the Fog. Naturally, Kodoc also wants to get his hands on the Compass and is prepared to do anything to achieve that.

It becomes apparent that the crew are more than just a serendipitously well-matched group. Hazel, the quick thinking leader, Swedish, the ingenious pilot, Bea, the preternaturally gifted mechanic, are there to support Chess as his affinity with the Fog means he could be the one to save the Earth. These four characters, plus brawling Loretta, continue to be the warm heart of the story. Though a few new characters are introduced, they pale in comparison and are more plot device than flesh and blood.

The plot is a judicious mix of action sequences and exploration of the world. Port Oro has plenty for the kids to discover and because it is a more fair and just society than that of the Rooftop, it gives Chess a reason to put himself in peril.

Once again there is some entertaining and clever word play on phrases from the old days. Norse is a tapping code used by the Vikings. The Amazons are fierce women warriors who fought battle and sold books. There is a long-running gag with Hazel keeping a Captain’s Log that begins each entry with Start-8. This is smart stuff that is perfectly pitched to be both witty and comprehensible.

The author has made the bold and cheer-inducing move of completing the series in only two books. This keeps the pace fast and the explanations brief, but at the same time doesn’t shortchange the reader. An excellent duology that I would recommend to any scifi or dystopian loving upper elementary or middle schooler.

Thanks to HarperCollins and Edelweiss for the digital review copy.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling and some other people (all right, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne)

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Harry_Potter_and_the_Cursed_Child_Special_Rehearsal_Edition_Book_CoverHarry Potter and the Cursed Child by J. K. Rowling and some other people (all right, John Tiffany and Jack Thorne)
Levine, 2016.

Being a bit of a purist, I hadn’t intended to read this, but we saw it at a bookstore while we were on holiday and thought we’d give it a go. I’m glad I read it, and though it’s not got the meat of the Canon, it’s really very good, and an entertaining way of spending time.

Taking off from the Epilogue in The Deathly Harrows, The Cursed Child is centered on Harry Potter’s middle son, Albus Severus, who is something of a misfit in the Potter family, signaled by the other two kids being named after Harry’s parents. Albus is sorted into Slytherin and, rebelling against the weight of the Potter name, he befriends Scorpius Malfoy who is rumored to actually be the son of Voldemort.

A lot of the play is concerned with father-son relationships. As well as Harry and Draco, Amos Diggory appears as a loving father, still grieving over the loss of Cedric. So when Harry, in a fit of pique tells Albus that there are times when he wishes that he wasn’t his son, Albus decides to set right a part of Harry’s past and, along with Scorpius and Delphi, Amos’s niece, uses a stolen time turner to restage the Triwizard tournament so that Cedric doesn’t go into the graveyard with Harry. However, their efforts have unintended consequences.

It was good to see Hermione, Ron, and Harry (and their different iterations in the time-changed portions) as well as other familiar characters from the Canon. We have hundreds of pages of backstory on these people and this world, so the playwright is fortunate to be able to shorthand it all. Ms Rowling’s plotting and character creating skills shine, and Albus and Scorpius, and their friendship, are an exciting addition to the Hogwarts realm. But we also have the comfort of being with people we know and love, and even references to scenes from books that are part of our collective psyche.

We are, tonally, back in the world of the earlier books – there are only a few glimpses of the darkness and desperation of the much more complex and ambiguous later books. And, unlike Deathly Hallows, there is never any doubt how the play will end, though it does so with some good twists along the way.

However, this is a play not a novel, and though the stage directions (which seem remarkably complicated in places) and dialogue drive the story along, there is a lack of depth that comes from not being in any of the characters’ heads. Of course, actors will presumably bring that element, but as I’m not likely to see the play anytime soon, this is all I have to go on.

So it’s not really the 8th book, and it’s a play script not a novel, but I was engrossed by the story telling skills of Ms Rowling, the writing of the other two fellows lucky enough to be involved, and the glimpse into the future of a world I thought was finished.

Front Lines by Michael Grant

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front linesFront Lines by Michael Grant
Soldier Girl, Bk. 1
Katherine Tegen, 2016

Launching a new series, spec fic author Grant (Gone series) gives us an exciting World War II action novel with an alternate history twist – in 1940, the draft was extended to all American citizens, regardless of gender. The novel follows three young women who enlist in the army in 1942: white Rio Richlin from rural California who goes into the Infantry as a sharpshooter, African American Frangie Marr from Tulsa, Oklahoma, who becomes a medic, and Jewish Rainy Schulterman from New York City who lands up in Army Intelligence. We spend a little time establishing their home lives, then go through basic training with them, and finally, in the second half of the book get to the “blood and guts” as they all end up in the battle of Kasserine Pass in Tunisia.

The characters, and their motivations, are well-developed. Numerous secondary characters are introduced and while some stand out, many are just a name and a hair and/or skin color. Each young woman has a romantic interest or two, though this is not really a significant part of the book

Though the book, told in the present tense, is lengthy, it moves quickly, particularly once the action moves to North Africa. The details of the fighting, the injuries and death, and the speed with which a situation can change, are captured, and though Grant does not spare the gory details he does so in flat prose which takes some of the horror out. Kasserine was the first major American offensive on that side of the Atlantic, and the lack of experience, particularly among the officers, is shown effectively.

Rio faces challenges, as a female in what has traditionally been all male territory, from the petty slights to the entrenched attitudes and chauvinism; and this is increased for Frangie who also has to face racial prejudice and for Rainy facing anti-Semitism as well. The harshly prejudicial language used is of the times, though, perversely, punches are pulled with what would undoubtedly have been the ubiquitous curse words.

For me, the big question is what’s the point of the twist? Yes, it’s a significant change that American women were on the front line in WWII – but nothing else is different and their presence doesn’t seem to make a difference. And it seems to me that the experience of the main characters is pretty similar to that of their male counterparts. Perhaps it feels a little more shocking that Rio finds a grim satisfaction in killing the enemy, but none of the other female characters, lead or otherwise, are shown to have that cold instinct, and neither Frangie nor Rainy, despite being in battle, are armed. In his author’s note, Grant highlights Elizabeth Wein’s Code Name Verity (Disney Hyperion, 2012) – not as an influence, but as something he aspired to – but CNV is a fictional account of something that could actually have happened. So Front Lines feels a bit gimmicky compared to that.

But it’s timely, with the Senate very recently passing a bill that would require young women to register for the draft. It could also be a great way to get American teen readers interested in World War II, and as it is largely historically accurate, that’s not a bad thing.

The Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy

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last full measureThe Last Full Measure by Trent Reedy
Divided We Fall, Bk 3
Scholastic/Levine, 2016

The 2nd Civil War, which 18 year-old Danny Wright was accidentally instrumental in starting, rages on as more states secede from the Union. Danny and friends are now back in Freedom Lake, Iowa, which is firmly under the thumb of the white supremacist Brotherhood of the White Eagle. Danny is no longer interested in fighting, and can think only of getting out of the war, so when he comes across a resistance movement that is planning to do just that, he is eager to join. But can he ever truly escape?

This lengthy final book in the trilogy once again gives Danny many moral challenges and decisions to make, and many bullet-intense action sequences. However, unnecessarily longwinded news bulletins, from the rest of Pan America and the world which is crumbling into World War III, slow the pace to a crawl and take the focus off the main story.

Does this work as a possible parable for the near future? Parallels are drawn with the Nazis in World War II, and some of the language and arguments put in the mouths of characters in the book, both national and international, is not too far off what we’re hearing now. Though Danny himself does not “give a shit about any of that liberal versus conservative stuff”, I suspect that with the possibility of President Donald Trump looming, many readers may be more politically conscious. There is even a sly poke at Trump, as Mexico closes the border to fleeing Americans.

Reedy has succeeded rather too well in giving his protagonist the authentic voice of a not particularly well-educated or articulate teen boy, and while this was not too much of an issue in the first two books, it becomes very grating now – the number of times Danny describes something as “jacked-up” is off the charts, and describing his girlfriend as hot because she is carrying a rifle feels distinctly icky. Danny’s close friends still don’t have much dimension, and the plethora of other characters are usually nothing more than a string of names, though I grew rather fond of Mrs Pierce, the elderly and sage leader of the resistance.

With the now-requisite death of a major character, and a somewhat foreboding ending, Reedy finishes off the trilogy in what should be a satisfying and emotional way. However, by that point I was just skimming through to get to the end, so I was more than a little disappointed that what had started out so promisingly in Divided We Fall, ended up an overly ambitious and somewhat flabby damp squib.

Reviewed from an ARC.

A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby

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TasteForMonsters-CCVR-1A Taste for Monsters by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, September, 2016.

I am a big fan of MJK’s standalone books (and not so long ago we had an MJK week at bibliobrit), and though they are all very different, they share an excitement and specificity about a historical setting, as well as creatively introducing different speculative elements, all wrapped up in an intensely human story.

And he keeps getting better! A Taste for Monsters is a story of redemption set in a wonderfully drawn late 19th Century London, with a Gothic mood, and supernatural elements drawing from the spiritualist ideas of that era.  17 year-old Evelyn Fallow gets a job as maid and companion for Joseph Merrick, aka the Elephant Man, at the London Hospital in the East End. This coincides with the horrific Whitechapel murders, attributed to the never-identified Jack the Ripper, and when the victims start haunting Joseph, Evelyn feels it is her task to bring peace to the ghosts.

Educated and intelligent (and fictional) Evelyn narrates with the formality and seriousness of a Victorian novel (though, thankfully for YA readers, without the longueurs), but her true heart, and her devotion to Joseph bring her alive off the page. Evelyn herself is a victim of ‘phossy jaw’ (phosphorous necrosis) caused by working in a match factory, which means her lower face is severely disfigured, and she has been victimized and reviled on the streets:  “The harsh words and violence had eaten away at my soul just as the phosphorous had my bone.” Her empathy with Joseph, her work at the hospital, and her quest to dispel the ghosts develop a self-confidence and gutsiness in Evelyn that provide the spine of the novel.

As in The Lost Kingdom, Kirby mixes real-life and fictional people. As well as Joseph Merrick, the novel also weaves in the murder victims, the patronizing Dr. Treves, Henry Sidgwick, the founder of Newnham College, and stern but fair Matron Luckes. Joseph, who we only see through Evelyn’s eyes, changes from the ‘monster’ that his physical appearance suggests, to becoming a kind, valiant and sensitive gentleman as she gets to know him. Her growing protectiveness of his physical and emotional health allows Evelyn to realize that her own scarring does not define her, and that a person’s true nature, whether monster or not, is internal and not indicated by their looks.

Kirby has a masterful hand with the telling historical detail. Evelyn’s trips on the new underground railway and her expeditions into the grimy, frighteningly unprotected streets, contrast with the bustling sanctuary of the hospital, and both provide an authentic setting. Of course somethings resonate with today – the public has a paradoxical tabloid taste and revulsion for monsters, and the East End Jewish population is demonized and scapegoated. The author also revels in the contemporary patois, and though sometimes the meaning isn’t always clear, it’s easy to get the gist. One bravura passage has Evelyn and the other maids describe a salacious gossip as “an old haybag”, “a vile church-bell”, and “a blowsabella”.

The novel’s plotting and pacing, along with the character development, are so impeccable, I was just a little disappointed that Evelyn’s climactic epiphany seemed a tad too slick and easy.  Nonetheless, the ending itself is satisfying and feels complete.

Teens who enjoy a mix of history and fantasy will surely love this, but it’s also worth trying with fans of straight historical fiction like Mary Hooper’s Fallen Grace (Bloomsbury, 2011).

Thanks to Scholastic and Edelweiss for the digital ARC.