Tag Archives: alternate history

That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston

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That Inevitable Victorian Thing by E. K. Johnston
Dutton, 2017

This quirkily appealing alternate history imagines that the sun never set on the British Empire because Queen Victoria’s descendants married into the colonies, ensuring a “cosmopolitan, multiracial mosaic.” Now, two centuries on, a debut ball in Toronto brings together quiet and pragmatic white Helena, her Irish-Hong Kong Chinese unspoken intended August, and Margaret, with “brown skin, epicanthal folds” and a “curly dark mass” of hair.

Each of the three has a secret that will shape their futures: Margaret is actually the heir to the throne; August has got himself into legal and financial trouble; Helena learns that she has an XY chromosome and is intersex. How these three learn each other’s secrets and what they do with them makes for an entertaining and charming novel. However, I thought that Helena’s Big Reveal was somewhat muffled and its significance isn’t explained till much later.

The world the author has created is an intriguingly odd mash up of Victorian era dress and manners, present day technology, and scifi genetic matching and it is explicated through snippets of history at the start of chapters. I found the role of genetics, which is somehow under the purview of the Church, to be a little confusing and it was never entirely clear to me what connection Helena’s mother had with all of this.

Nonetheless, the author’s three lead characters are very well-crafted and it is their story and the unexpected ways in which their relationships develop that form the beating heart of the novel and while the setting is smart it takes a backseat to that. While I spent most of the novel assuming it was going to be a series because of the leisurely pace, a surprisingly quick and complete wrap-up suggests otherwise though I actually wouldn’t mind a sequel.

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera

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They Both Die at the End by Adam Silvera
HarperTeen, 2017.

This magnificent and haunting YA novel is set in an alternate present day New York in which Death-Cast alerts you on the day you are to die.

Two teen Latinx boys who have received this call spend their last day together ensuring that they live before they die. Puerto Rican Mateo has been living his life vicariously through video games and online updates of other Deckers, as those who are on their End Day are called, and Cuban American Rufus has felt lost and out of control since he saw the rest of his family die.

They meet through the Last Friend app and movingly support each other as they tie up ends and make peace with themselves. Silvera (More Happy than Not, 2015) has created two wonderful and wonderfully distinct characters and their dual narration is punctuated with short accounts of other people whose lives are, however briefly, touched by these young men.

As the plot drives towards the inevitable end, signaled by the book’s title, this reader for one was hoping for a miracle, and  the potent theme of living without fear and regrets shines through. Tears were shed.

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye

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Pigs Might Fly by Nick Abadzis ; illustrated by Jerel Dye
First Second, July, 2017.

In this exuberant middle grade graphic adventure novel Lily Leanchops, a teenaged pig, makes an airplane that can fly without the use of magic and uses it when the Warthogs threaten to invade Pigdom Plains.

With a mix of science, magic, and myth, Abadzis’s (Laika, 2007) plot is a little long-winded as Lily finds out what is really motivating the Warthogs and attempts to prevent the attack on her homeland, but witty porcine wordplay, from place names including the Bay of Pigs and Piggadilly Circus to expressions like “Hogforsaken,” keeps the story entertaining.

With an Edwardian setting and character types, Dye’s illustrations, placed in a mostly conventional comic book layout, are colorful, energetic, and expressive and the lively near-human anthropomorphic pigs have a variety of skintones from pink to tan to dark brown.

Lily’s story arc, from being disbelieved by her father, the famous inventor Hercules Fatchops, to being the “Aerial Honker” that fights off the invaders, is somewhat conventional but gives the reader a determined and plucky protagonist to root for.

An unexpected last page twist sets up a sequel and leaves room for further exploration of this world.

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud

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The Empty Grave by Jonathan Stroud
Lockwood and Co., Book 5
Disney Hyperion, 2017

If you read many of my reviews, you’ll have noticed I can be a bit sniffy about series. This is generally because they open with a terrific flourish focusing on the personal story of some teen, but then get bogged down in subsequent novels when the author tries to open up the world he or she has created. But there are exceptions! Harry Potter is, of course, one and so is Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. And I believe Jonathan Stroud has created two exceptional series that get better as they go along: Bartimaeus and Lockwood and Co. So if you haven’t read them, stop looking at this right now and get to it. For the rest of us Stroud fans, you may continue on to my review of The Empty Grave.

In this outstanding 5th (and final) book in the consistently excellent Lockwood and Co series, our friends at the Lockwood psychic detective agency are digging deeper into the root of the Problem that has been plaguing Great Britain for more than 50 years.

There’s more than a hint of melancholy hanging over the charismatic Anthony Lockwood and our narrator, Lucy Carlyle, as they have now been to the Other Side, and for Lockwood, especially, it brings a devil may care desperation to his dealings with the denizens of the ghost world. While there is still much lighthearted banter, particularly between Lucy and the Skull, the overall feel is much more elegiac than previous books. And at least some of that comes from me knowing this will be the last book with my friends

Joining our regulars – Lockwood, Lucy, nerdy George Cubbins, and elegant Holly Munro – is Quill Kipps who has played a support role in previous books. Quill is older, though no more responsible than the others.

Unlike previous books, the book opens with a vignette that is directly related to the main plot arc – the gang are trying to dig up Marissa Fittes’ grave to see if there is really a body there. After this escapade, we move to an apparently unrelated case, that of the Belle Dame Sans Merci, which is more to build our growing concern about Lockwood’s state of mind than to forward the plot.

Stroud perfectly balances the scares with the warmth of the characters, and also manages to challenge the reader’s assumption (or, at least, this reader’s assumption) that everything is going to be alright. As Lockwood takes Lucy to see the empty grave between his parents, a space for him to join his family, George gets beaten up, and Quill gets a sword in the side, it’s never clear if everyone is going to come out alive. Even the skull wants his freedom and can Lucy refuse when she knows she could be dead very soon?

The series wraps up with a satisfyingly exciting climax and the end-tying warmth of the aftermath. To be honest, I was hoping this was going to be an ongoing series as it’s a high spot in my reading year, but Mr Stroud still looks pretty young so I’m hoping he can get another series going if he’s finished with Lockwood (which may be a British TV series). And I can always go back and re-read Bartimaeus.

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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.