I'm a big, big fan of novels in which Girls Have Adventures. I love a girl with swash in her buckle and plenty of impetus to find answers for herself and not depend on anyone else. Unfortunately, a lot of the time, adventure novels only meet this desire halfway. This novel has plenty of spectacular gadgets, and a seriously mysterious world, but I could have used a little more grounding in the "what" and the "why" behind the device, thus the novel left me with a few questions which may or may not be cleared up in resultant sequels - and the book very clearly is going to have sequels, as (NB:) the ending is a cliffhanger. The first two books will be available at the same time, however, so no fear!
Further NB: Though all of my reviews are meant to be spoiler-free, I do mention a great many of the more original elements of the novel after the summary, so reader beware.
Summary: Eyelet Elsworth is eight years old when the sun... goes out. Some massive electromagnetic aftershock from an invention her father made - and subsequently had stolen from him - somehow did something unexpected and has blocked out the sun with clouds, dust, and vapor, producing eternal twilight. Eyelet's bizarre parallel universe England is led by a grim governing body called The Brethren who have Byzantine rules for Behavior and Comportment, imprison the Mad and dip in wax and hang those who they accuse of practicing Wickedry. The Brethren's world blends a type of early American Puritanism and its witchcraft trials and the Georgian preoccupation with asylums for those who don't follow societal mores, accusing them of insanity. The Brethren seem nuts, but theirs is the safer society, protecting its residents from real world dangers - semi-sentient, asphyxiating fog which and ghostly apparitions which allegedly suck out the brains. Eyelet becomes orphaned and endangered, for she has a secret and terrifying affliction of epilepsy -- a disorder entirely misunderstood and treated as incipient Madness, punishable by arrest, asylum, and possibly shortly thereafter, scientific experiments and death. When Professor Smrt, her villainous teacher, accuses her of Madness and Wickedry like her mother's, she escapes into Gears, seeking her father's invention, which she's convinced will fix her as he promised.
Unfortunately, her escape is on the wagon of a Gears resident who has already stolen the invention - which he's convinced will save him. Eighteen year old Urlick Babbit has white skin, white hair, a port wine birthmark on his face, and pink eyes, which aren't the scariest thing Eyelet has seen, but it's close. Ulrick has heard that this invention called The Illuminator will cure him, and allow him to move about in society without a mask. But, he can't make the Illuminator work -- and Eyelet can't stay on his good side long enough to get him to trust her with the information of where it is, much less what he's working on, who he is, and why he lives where he does. Working at cross purposes, bickering and sniping at each other, the two nevertheless fall headlong in love, and risk everything for something that they're not sure will do anything - but regardless means everything.
Peaks: This novel begins unquestionably well, with intriguing details, unusual world-building and a seriously disadvantaged heroine who finds the world magical and wants nothing more than to take it all in. We, too, share that curiosity and move quickly through the first scenes. Eyelet has a strong voice, strong opinions and a great deal of energy to poke into things which sometimes surprise her, sometimes hurt her, and most of the time prod her on to the next discovery. Her indefatigable curiosity keeps the pace of the novel moving. The gadgetry in the novel is curious and the descriptions are detailed and unique. I initially felt like there was a lot to like about this novel, and a lot I'd not seen before which was intriguing. The beginning adventures are harrowing enough that all the near escapes are riveting, and Eyelet's advantageous meeting with reminded me of the beginning of INCARCERON, by Catherine Fisher. Additionally, the descriptions of Eyelet's epilepsy were original and creative and showed a lot of skill.
Valleys: Ulrick has white hair, white skin... and pink eyes. Without using the name, he's depicted as a person with albinism, living at the edge of society, seeking a fix from this terrible, terrible, awful, unfortunate, crippling... You get the picture. This panicky hysteria is a cliché, and an unnecessarily negative depiction. A quote from Wikipedia, offered without further comment: The depiction of albinism in popular culture, especially the portrayal of people with albinism in film and fiction, has been asserted by albinism organizations and others to be largely negative and has raised concerns that it reinforces, or even engenders, societal prejudice and discrimination against such people. This trend is sometimes referred to as the "evil albino" plot device or albino bias.
Like INCARCERON, there are a lot of murky details and dark doings in this book which eluded explanation; unfortunately, the reader isn't anchored securely into the What Is and the Why in the end, which may leave some readers irretrievably adrift.
I struggled to understand a technologically advanced Georgian-parallel-England which promotes science, learning, and gadget-y inventions like mechanical ravens yet still misunderstands training actual live birds as pets... and calls it witchcraft, which actually shouldn't exist within their belief system. How could a misogynistic world in which a challenge to male authority by any woman, considered a "break in temperament," and the first diagnoseable sign of Madness -- be the preferred place to live? Women seem universally reviled - but no reason is given why, though to be fair, men of science in the historical Georgian era, well into the Victorian age were considered to be feeble-minded and good mainly for childbearing. Still, I wondered if attitudes were always as patriarchal before the sun went dark, and if so, how Eyelet's mother provided for them at all after her father's death...
Readers may be frustrated with the emotional inconsistencies in this novel - Eyelet's parents have died in horrifying ways, yet this seems to be something only briefly lingered on in the novel. Eyelet's reactive flailing produces a great many misunderstandings which could be solved quickly and easily by just honest, straightforward, non-hysterical conversation. Eyelet is frequently at odds with Ulrick - who is by turns pathetic, unpleasant, creepy, and a sympathetic character. They find almost immediate attraction to each other, which the reader might find baffling, as their behavior is entirely inconsistent with tolerant affection, much less love, but it seems to be mostly physical - which may also seem odd, given the emphasis on Ulrick's bizarre appearance.
Central to the story is The Illuminator, which both Eyelet and Ulrick believe will do myriad things for them. Eyelet insists to Ulrick that it's meant to be an x-ray machine, and yet, is still determined to go out and steal her father's instructions on how to make it work, with the idea that it will somehow be worth it, in the end, because she, at least, will be fixed. There's a strong idea that if this one thing is gained, ALL ELSE will be made perfect, but that seems a very small foundation on which to build an entire plot. Eyelet seems to count death as just an inconvenience in the way of getting this One True Device, this Illuminator which everyone - even the single-dimensional bad guy, Prof. Smrt - is ready to risk everything to get their hands on. Nobody knows what it does, nobody explains HOW it will improve their lot so clearly, but the reader is asked to suspend disbelief as the characters ready themselves to Risk It All...
Conclusion: There are a lot of amazing ideas in this adventure, but this reader found it harder to trust that the plot would wrap things up for me in a way that made sense. Having to wait for the sequel to do that might work better for readers with more patience.
I received my copy of this book courtesy of NetGalley. You can find LUMIÉRE by Jacqueline Garlick at an online e-tailer, or at a real life, independent bookstore near you!