Tag Archives: steampunk

The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman

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The Book of Dust: La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman
Knopf, 2017

Pullman makes a welcome and largely successful return to the world of His Dark Materials with the first book in a new trilogy, The Book of Dust, set when Lyra Belacqua is just a baby. I LOVED all three books of HDM but most especially the middle one, The Subtle Knife which introduced Will.

In the familiar steampunky Oxford, where a person’s soul is an externalized animal daemon and alethiometers can reveal the truth, 6-month old Lyra has been placed in the sanctuary of a nunnery to protect her from the Magisterium, the ruling religious body, after a witch has prophesied that she is “destined to put an end to destiny.”

The protagonist is 11-year old Malcolm Polstead – a marvelously enterprising, curious, and full-hearted boy who is something of a precursor of Will. He helps out at his parents’ pub and at the nunnery where he meets and becomes deeply enamored of baby Lyra. In his wanderings around the city he becomes involved with a scholar-spy who might be working against the Magisterium.

When a supernatural storm floods the country, Malcolm, along with sharp and no-nonsense 16 year-old Alice, rescues Lyra from the nunnery. They set off in his canoe, La Belle Sauvage, to London to the perceived safety of Lyra’s father. On this odyssey, which has rather more natural and supernatural encounters than I really wanted, they are relentlessly pursued by a smiling villain and his hideously deformed hyena daemon.

Pullman expands the world – three alethiometers! – and adds new characters including the uncomfortably creepy villain, Gerard Bonneville. There are returning characters, including Lyra’s parents Lord Asriel and the chilling Mrs. Coulter, which might bring a frisson of familiarity to HDM readers but new readers will not be disadvantaged.

The target is still organized religion and Pullman pursues this with the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Magisterium’s secret police, and the League of St. Alexander, which empowers children to turn in supposed enemies of the Church. Dust is discussed briefly, but to be honest, I didn’t feel I got much out of those passages and recall feeling similarly vague in the later (chronologically) books.

The ending is frustratingly abrupt, raising many questions and it is unclear how or even if the next book in the series, apparently set a decade after His Dark Materials, will answer them. Nonetheless, even with flaws, this is an impressive extension to a beloved series that will appeal to tweens, teens, and adults.

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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 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.

The Wooden Prince by John Claude Bemis

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wooden princeThe Wooden Prince by John Claude Bemis
Out of Abaton, Bk. 1
Disney Hyperion, 2016.

The fairytale of Pinocchio, the puppet who becomes a boy, is thrilling twisted in Jean Claude Bemis’s charming middle grade fantasy.

Plot elements familiar from the original Carlo Collodi story (and the Disney movie) are transformed – the puppet show, being swallowed by a whale, Pinocchio’s nose growing – and familiar characters are fleshed out with emotionally resonant personalities, and have story arcs of their own.

The intriguingly inventive, steampunky Venetian Empire is developed over the course of the story and, more fully, in a glossary at the back. A new element introduced to the tale is Abaton, a mystical land that’s the source of all magic brought to the human world, and which seems likely to figure more prominently in a sequel,

As Pinocchio undertakes a quest to find his father, the alchemist Geppetto, he is aided by Mezmer, a vixen, and Sop, a cat, as well as Maestro, a persnickety cricket. Blue-haired Princess Lazuli, daughter of Prester John, the immortal ruler of Abaton, brings some girl power to the team.

Pursued by the forces of the wicked Doge, Pinocchio finds that love, friendship and loyalty are what transforms him from wood to flesh. Though a satisfyingly worked through complete story in itself, this is the first part of a series, and readers will be excited by what’s to come once Bemis leaves the source story behind.

The Fog Diver by Joel Ross

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fog diverThe Fog Diver by Joel Ross
Harper, 2015.

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.

The Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford; illustrated by Kelly Murphy

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missing moonstoneThe Case of the Missing Moonstone by Jordan Stratford; illustrated by Kelly Murphy
The Wollstonecraft Detective Agency, Book 1
Knopf, 2015.

In this first book in an elementary grade mystery series, 11 year-old Ada Lovelace (real-life daughter of poet Lord Byron) and 14 year-old Mary Godwin (real-life daughter of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft) decide to set up a detective agency, and their first case is investigating the theft of a jewel, the Acorn of Ankara.

The two main characters are well-delineated, though the odd couple pairing is hardly original – Ada is a brilliant mathematician and scientist but lacks (as is usually the literary case) social awareness, while Mary is more socially astute but less logical.

Stratford plays fast and loose with historical accuracy – for example, the girls were actually 14 years apart – though does come clean in the thorough Notes at the end. It did lead me to wonder, though, what was the point of using real life characters that it’s extremely unlikely the target reader will have heard of. I guess the hope is that one or two may do some follow-up research on these British proto-feminists, though they may come across some rather unpleasant facts about the complex web of relationships in this circle.

The mystery itself is lightweight, as much of the book is taken with setting up the characters and the world, and it will not stretch young readers’ detective skills too much as the resolution is delayed by the characters’ inability to find the meaning of ‘mesmerize’, a task which the reader with Google to hand will make short shrift of.

The tone is smart and cheery, aided by Murphy’s illustrations, and is appealingly contemporary despite the 19th century setting. All in all, a pleasant read for elementary school fans of mysteries, though the historical setting may make it a hard sell.

Reviewed from an ARC.

The Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby

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Welcome to part 2 of Matthew J. Kirby week! Check Monday’s post of Icefall if you missed it.

lost kingdomThe Lost Kingdom by Matthew J. Kirby
Scholastic, 2013

In this rousing old-fashioned yarn, reminiscent of Treasure Island, an expedition of the American Philosophical Society sets off in 1753 to find the lost Kingdom of Madoc.

Billy Bartram is elated to accompany his father, botanist John Bartram as part of the team, and the development of Billy and his relationship with his father is the thematic heart of this story. Billy is “like [John] in so many ways, but unlike him in others” and it is his recognition of these contrasts that ultimately allows him to find his own path.

There is nonstop action and intrigue on the voyage in the steampunk-esque flying ship, culminating in a thrilling battle in which each of the vividly realized expeditioners uses his scientific expertise to fight off the French marines.

Kirby skillfully mixes fact, fiction, myth and fantasy, while scrupulously delineating them in an author’s note, to create an adventure that also weaves in wider themes of difference and father-son relationships.