Normally I'd gush about this being a great summer read to tuck into your bag for the beach, but I kind of hate the term "beach reads" and the relentless marketing campaigns and lists surrounding them. For me a beach read is a book I can get through quickly and simply be entertained, even while people are running around and screaming and flailing in the water -- but I realized that's more than a little reductive. Here at Wonderland, we feel there's not a thing wrong with a book primarily plot driven, fast-paced and doesn't require you to keep track of too many characters or their motivations. However, since I don't know if that's going to be your experience with this book, I'll call this book a one-long-drink read, describing my experience with it. With an original title and a fun premise, this romp through an alternate history will be, for newbies and fans of the genre be read in one gulp, and enjoyed like a cold lemonade on a hot day.
Summary: Verity Newton, daughter of a Yale professor and more educated than most women of her class and station, and at sixteen is well able to move in society and marry. However, now that her mother has passed away, she opts to leave the chilly halls of learning - and live a little. Adventure comes almost immediately - her train is robbed, and she clobbers the masked bandit she fears will accost her before he can do so much as look at her, she rides in a steam-powered mechanical bus, because a regular horse-drawn cab isn't allowed in the Magister neighborhoods where she's seeking employment, and without even trying she aces an interview to find herself in the biggest house on the best street, employed to chaperone three children, only one of whom is really in need of her. Verity is sitting pretty, for the most part. At almost every turn, she lucks into good friends, an interested beau, and a cause which grips her interest. Verity is in the best of positions to be of help to her new friends -- and her special skills give her an even greater edge, if she ever mentioned them. However, there are risks abounding -- and soon more risks than she could have imagined. It will take some fast moves to maneuver through her new life and allow those dear to her to emerge unscathed.
Peaks: This isn't so much historical as alternate history with a soupçon of steam, studded with gears. The mechanical things in the novel are entertaining, as is the political rivalry between the British and the Americans.
I enjoyed Rollo and Olive and the character of Verity is plucky and daring. She seemed a little unreflective at times, but the action bowls the narrative - and its characters and readers along, and mostly not something there's time to worry about.
Lord Henry is mysterious exactly the right length of time in the book -- which is for about four minutes. Verity has him pegged, and lets her curiosity about him lead her into things -- and then she keeps wondering why she wants to know. I think that really shows the best natural progression of emotion for a curious person. I think subsequent novels in this line could have Verity solving all sorts of little mysteries while just listening, looking, and being underestimated. I loved that part. While I wanted a little more about the magic -- does it take a lot out of you? Does it have any limits? - the magicians seem simply explained enough for this "episode" of the novel, and easily understood.
Oh, and while this "episode" ties up neatly, the author left room for a sequel.
Valleys: I enjoyed the novel, and found the imperfections small. I found the setting a little non-specific; this New York City setting could have been London, for all of the "My Lord"-ing and &tc. Lacking descriptions of the fabulous apartment buildings and neighborhoods of New York, and the bits of the 1880's, which were an intensely interesting time in New York history (there was a massive and memorable blizzard, foppish dandies dressing competitively and teams of pickpockets), I was a tiny bit disappointed. Though a lot of the novel takes place within the house, the city itself is a little stock, and diminished.
Also slightly diminished are some of the secondary characters - there are myriad characters, and quite a few are like the cast of a play you see who have names like Newsboy One. With the crowd in the novel, I could have missed someone, but it seemed there is a single character of color which is a disappointment, since this is an alternate history, and the author could have changed history in any way she wished. A single minority is a failure of imagination in an otherwise richly imagined tale.
There is a romance in this novel, and while some readers see it as a triangle, I think some will be surprised, while others will merely wonder if the lady in question should have questioned emotions and incidents a bit more, as it all happened rather quickly. Not quite insta-love speed, but the actions of several characters are a bit out of keeping for the social mores of the day -- arguably, this is alternate history, of course, and there are class differences, but sometimes things more easily make their presence known by an absence of even a thought about them.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of Macmillian publishers. After July 14th, you can find REBEL MECHANICS by Shaunna Swendson at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!