October (Toby) Daye is a changeling — she’s half fae and half human. Half Daoine Sidhe to be exact. She has just enough fae features to not fit into the human world, but her magic is just weak enough to keep her from fitting into fae either. Toby was splitting the difference quite well, serving her fae liege as a private detective and living a semi-normal human life with her human husband. But when a bad fae turns her into a fish on a mission for her liege, and it takes fourteen years to be turned back, everything changes. Toby loses her family and her desires to have any ties to the fae world, but the fae world won’t let her be for long. A high-ranking fae who was also her friend turns up dead, killed by iron, and a curse means that Toby must investigate.
Interestingly enough, one of the later books in this series was recommended to me by an automatic readalike generator (whose name I know forget) as a readalike for Fudoki (review) a book set in historic Japan about a cat turned into a woman warrior. I was intrigued by the series, although I wasn’t certain of the connection to Fudoki, and so I put the first book on my wishlist. My future mother-in-law was kind enough to gift it to me during the height of my cabin fever during Boston’s historic winter this year. This book hits all the right tones for urban fantasy: a strong yet wounded heroine, a complex mystical world operating parallel to and sometimes overlapping with our own, a single book mystery for the heroine to figure out, and an overarching mystery that leaves the reader wanting to come back for more.
The book takes a little bit to get set up. There’s a flashback to before Toby was a fish then the book pops quickly forward to the (near) present when Toby escapes being a fish. It at first struck me as a bit of an odd beginning, but by the end of the book I was loving it. The fact that Toby has a 14 year gap means that there are elements about her world she has to learn or relearn, meaning when key parts of information need to be told to the reader, it comes across as natural that Toby will need to learn about it or remember it. She did have those 14 years away, after all. It’s a plot-telling device, but it’s smart. It also isn’t forgotten when it comes to Toby’s character. The fact that she lost her family and all those years deeply impact her psyche, and that’s as it should be. It helps automatically make her a more well-rounded character.
Halfings are common in urban fantasy, but the ones in this universe are particularly well-done, mostly because there’s just so many of them. Toby isn’t an anomaly, halflings are a constant, persistent problem for the fae to have to deal with. They don’t quite fit into fae, but they also can’t just banish them for the humans to deal with. The humans don’t even know they exist, in fact, most humans who do mate with fae never even know that they did. While some fae are open to and embrace the halflings, others are not. Similarly, some halflings will give anything to just fit into fae or into the human world, while others are comfortable living partly in each. The fact that there are so many halflings allows for a lot of diversity and keeps Toby from looking like a marked heroine. She is just one of many, dealing as she can. I appreciate the everywoman aspect this lends her.
Toby is also extremely likeable. She’s down-to-earth and matter-of-fact about everything. She has many quotes that sound like an average person talking but contain a kernel of wisdom. She’s a humble smart woman who maybe doesn’t realize just how much savvy she does have.
That’s the true value in wards; not keeping things out, but telling you if something’s managed to get in. (loc 537)
It can’t all be dreams because a broken dream will kill you as surely as a nightmare will, and with a lot less mercy. At least the nightmares don’t smile while they take you down. (loc 2428)
The fae world is incredibly complex and yet makes a lot of sense. There are many different types of fae, and they are smoothly introduced. My personal favorite are the Caid Sidhe. They are surely the reason this book was recommended due to my loving Fudoki. The Caid Sidhe are fae who shapeshift into cats, and even in bipedal form have some cat-like features and abilities. The king of the cats has a bit of a love/hate relationship with Toby that is fun to see. But also, fae cats. How is that not fun? Realistically, though, I wouldn’t have loved seeing the Caid Sidhe so much if there hadn’t been such a variety of fae. It’s a richly imagined world that is really fun to visit.
The mystery is good, with Toby investigating a murder. There were plenty of plot-twists, although I did guess the responsible party far in advance of the ending, which was a bit of a bummer. I also must say that I’m not really a fan of heroines getting wounded within an inch of their life only to be saved by magic repeatedly. It removes some of the sense of danger for me. I did appreciate that for once there was an urban fantasy heroine who was never threatened with rape. That was a nice change of pace. I’ll take forcibly changed into a fish over that any day.
Overall, this book sets up the incredibly complex fae world of the series, as well as establishes the heroine’s character and background quite well. Readers will easily fall into the incredibly imaginative world that Toby partially lives in that runs parallel to and sometimes hand-in-hand with our own. Some readers may find the mystery a bit predictable, but this is an excellent first entry in an urban fantasy series that will leave the reader eager to pick up the next and go back to this rich world as soon as possible.
4 out of 5 stars
Hello my lovely readers! Many book bloggers are familiar with Carl of Stainless Steel Droppings’ two big reading challenges he runs every year. I often participate in the fall challenge for reading horror/thriller/mystery/etc… but I have never participated in the spring challenge for reading fantasy, because I used to think I don’t like fantasy. I’ve discovered that I’m wrong. I do like fantasy, just mainly urban fantasy and fantasies that are not set in a Medieval Europe style setting. So I thought that this year I would participate in Once Upon a Time IX!
Once Upon a Time IX focuses on reading books that fit into the categories of fantasy, folklore, fairy tales, or mythology between March 21st and June 21st. I’m signing up for the level called “The Journey.” Read at least one book in any of those categories. I’m hoping to read more than one but I was worried if I signed up for a higher level it would feel like too much pressure to me. My personal goal right now is three books.
Books I already own that fit the challenge are listed below. I’d love to hear from you in the comments if there’s one you’d particularly like to recommend to me from my list!
- Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett
- Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King
- Deadtown by Nancy Holzner
- Fables Vol. 1 by Bill Willingham
- Fated by S. G. Browne
- A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire
- The Nonborn King by Julian May
- Tales of the Cthulhu Mythos by H. P. Lovecraft
- Unshapely Things by Mark Del Franco
- The Veiled Mirror by Christine Frost
- Watership Down by Richard Adams
- The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson
It’s 2015, and Denny Younger of New Cardiff, California, is a caste of 8. He loves reading and studying but he knows he will probably end up working in the shops just like his father. But when he takes his placement test, he’s offered a position that he is promised is better, but he can’t know anything about it until he starts working, and he must leave his family behind. Denny’s family life is in pieces, so he eagerly agrees. Before he knows it, he is re-caste as a 5 and soon discovers that he will be traveling through time as an observer, recording family histories for the elite. Even the smallest error in time-travel can have far-reaching consequences, and before he knows it, Denny finds himself racing against time (and other time-travelers) to fix everything. But what does fixing everything actually mean?
I love a good time-travel book, so when Audible offered this one up to me for review, I eagerly agreed. This is an action-packed book but with far less time-travel than it originally appears and much more parallel universes.
The basic premise of the book is that this is the year 2015 in a wold where the American Revolution never occurred. Without the American Revolution, the British Empire ended up taking over most of the world (except East Asia). Everyone is sorted into extremely strict castes, and family history is everything. These people haven’t made it to the moon yet, but they have managed to discover time-travel. And they use this discovery solely to send people called “rewinders” back in time to verify people’s ancestry to solidify their ranking in this world. Now, this was my first major problem with the book, and it’s a plot point I just never was able to let go of. This society acknowledges the risk of the butterfly effect and yet they brazenly send people willy-nilly through time risking everything for what? Geneaology. And this has been going on for decades with no ill effects. Perhaps other readers can get past the idea that a federally (er, royally) backed agency would do this, but I simply could not.
Naturally, when our brave hero goes back in time, he is the first to woops his way into a butterfly effect. He knows he’s probably done it (he causes someone to leave a location 12 seconds late), but he still pops back up into the present to check on things. Once there, it takes him days to figure out that he’s changed history. Daaaaays. It should really not take him this long to figure this thing out. Denny causes a change. Denny pops up to the present. Denny has troubling connecting to his companion (a person in the present who grounds the person time-traveling), so he gets sick for a few days. Denny then wanders through our universe’s New York City and can’t figure out what’s going on. It takes traveling to California’s New Cardiff (in our world, Los Angeles) and seeing that his family home is gone to figure out what’s happened. Really? A person who has been trained in time-travel takes this long to figure out this very basic time-travel problem? It’s hard to believe, especially after we’ve been told repeatedly how smart Denny is, that he could be that stupid.
Denny then starts living in Los Angeles to investigate this parallel universe. He naturally meets a girl and falls for her. He then has trouble deciding whether to put everything back or not. And of course there are other rewinders out there he must contend with.
The basic plot idea is interesting. What would have happened if there had been no American Revolution and how would a person from that society react if they discovered a different option for their lives? But how the author gets there isn’t fully thought-out or fleshed-out enough. There are too many logical fallacies, such as the ones I’ve laid out above. That said, it was a fun read with a different plot than what has been coming from a lot of YA recently. I was glad to see a scifi that contains some history for YA readers. I also appreciated how many women characters are present in the book, including Denny’s trainer and his nemesis. Similarly, Denny’s world is extremely lacking in diversity due to the success of the British empire and its traditionalism. When he travels to our world, he immediately encounters greater diversity, both of race and of sexuality, and he seems to appreciate that, which is a nice touch.
The narrator does a good job both keeping a good pace and setting the tone for the book. While I understand why the narrator uses a British accent for the British characters from the 1700s, the history geek in me was frustrated, since the stereotypical modern “British accent” didn’t exist back then. (I knew this from my History BA, but here’s an article that explains what I’m talking about).
Overall, this book has an interesting premise and fast-moving plot. It has some romance, but is thankfully free of any love triangles. Time-travel fans may be frustrated by how easily characters brush off the real presence of time-travel issues. The science of time-travel is simply not explored enough, nor is history. However, YA readers looking for a quick read and something different in the genre will most likely enjoy it.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Free download from Audible in exchange for my honest review
Eugenia Markham is a shaman who spends her time sending the fae back to their own world. She hates the fae both for trespassing into our world and for kidnapping women into their own. When fae start referring to her by her given name, rather than her working name, she becomes concerned something is awry. What she discovers is a prophecy that will change everything.
I picked this up because I love Richelle Mead’s Georgina Kincaid series (review) so much. I wish any of the summaries I read of the book had even hinted at one of the big plot points, as I think how a reader responds to that plot point will dictate how much they enjoy the series overall.
Without revealing too much, early on in the book, fae start showing up and attempting to rape Eugenie. She finds out that there is a prophecy that her child will be the one to bring about large changes in the land of the fae. (This is not particularly a spoiler, it is revealed early on and there are even more plot twists later on to complicate this). What this means for the reader is that our main character must repeatedly physically fight off would-be rapists. If I had realized this was such a key plot point, I would not have personally picked up this book, and I think there are probably quite a few other readers who would be similarly bothered by this repeated scene of our heroine trying to fight off rapists. To be clear, this is not one single solitary incident. It is one of the main repeated problems for this character. Fae keep trying to rape her.
Another plot line is that the fae are known for kidnapping and raping young (this is specified, young, as in early to mid teens) human women. Because the fae have fertility problems. In fact, the case that Eugenie takes on early in the book is trying to save a teenaged girl who has been kidnapped by the fae. Eugenie normally doesn’t go into the land of the fae in a corporeal form (she does send her spirit via astral projection), but she agrees to in this case because she is so bothered by the knowledge that this teenage girl is facing a lifetime of rape.
These are just two non-spoiler examples of the rape plots, and there is at least one more that I won’t reveal as it’s a big spoiler. Readers who for whatever reason do not want to read either about rapes occurring off-screen or about the threat of rape or about a woman repeatedly having to physically fight off rapists should not pick this book up. These are key and frequent plot points in this book.
Having said this, I do not judge the book for including these plot points. Rape is a part of some fae mythology, and the author has every right to include it in an urban fantasy book based in fae mythology. I also think the author handles the inclusion of the rape and threatened rape well. Rape is never excused, rapists are denounced, and there are some fae characters who state they would never have sex with a human female who hasn’t consented. The author has a valid reason for including the rape plots, and she handles them well. I simply wish that it was clearer from the official book blurb what a large role rape plays in this book, and thus, in my review, I am being certain to be clear for potential readers the extent of rape plot points in this book.
So what about the rest of the book? Eugenie is mostly what one expects from an urban fantasy heroine. She is strong, talented, wears her hair short and hates dresses. She has a questionable roommate and a cover story of being some sort of private investigator. What makes Eugenie unique in urban fantasy is that she is a shaman trained by her step-father, and the only really supernatural humanoids in her world are the fae and some mythological shapeshifters from other cultures (think of Japanese myth’s shifters). Don’t come to this series looking for vampires and werewolves. You won’t find them. The fantastical world of this book is simply that there is another world of fae, and sometimes they cross over into ours.
The prophecy at the center of the book has more to it than it originally seems, and the plot twists are surprising and exciting. Yes, many urban fantasy books revolve around a prophecy that has our heroine at the center, but this is the first one I’ve seen in a while that’s more about the heroine’s child than the heroine herself.
As is to be expected, Eugenie has two potential love interests, a half kitsune (shape shifting fox) half human man and a fae. Personally, I didn’t like either of her love interests. One is too bourgeois/royal, and the other is too macho for my taste. But I can see how other readers would enjoy one or the other or both of them and appreciate Eugenie’s difficulty in deciding who has her heart.
The audiobook narration by Jennifer Van Dyck starts out a bit awkward and gets better with time. For the first half or so of the book, her narration can sometimes be a bit stilted. She almost sounds like she’s reading lists. She pauses at odd times. Also, her voice sometimes comes across as elderly, which doesn’t suit the tone of the book. For the most part, though, the narration doesn’t detract too much from the book, it simply doesn’t elevate it either.
Overall, this is an entry in the urban fantasy genre that sticks closely to the well-loved trope of a strong, non-girly woman battling supernatural forces while also adding on some unique elements, such as a prophecy about her future child and sticking to the fae of mythology. Readers should be aware that attempted rape and rapes occurring off-screen feature frequently in the book. The plot itself is twisting and exciting, with enough unique elements to keep regular readers of urban fantasy engaged. Recommended to urban fantasy fans looking for a universe that sticks more closely to the traditional mythical depiction of the fae world and who don’t mind the inclusion of rape and attempted rape in the plot of the book.
3 out of 5 stars
This giveaway is slightly different from the ones I usually run. I’m giving away copies of two books written by an online friend of mine. I haven’t offered up an official review here, because I don’t feel it’s totally ethical to review books written by people I am friends with. I feel like it could skew things. However, I am more than happy to help get the buzz out there! Amanda Ramsay McNeill and I met online because our names are so similar (mine has one L, hers has two). We are not related, but we thought it was kind of cool there are two Amanda McNeil(l)’s out there writing. Anyway, she has generously offered two print copies of her scifi book to the US readers of my blog.
Title: Life Sketches
Two hundred fifty years from now, pockets of society are recovering at varying degrees from a cataclysmic revolution. Simon Wakefield lives in a risk-free society ruled by the Advocacy. Simon’s work is instrumental to the well being of the 750,000 residents of the Urban Complex. He oversees a unit of life sketchers, professionals who write the rigid agendas by which every individual in the UC lives. Simon is content until he notices flaws in the lives of those around him. His father-in-law’s agenda has been limited due to a terminal illness. The newborn son of coworker and friend Jordan Blackwood has been terminated due to a minor birth defect. His teenaged daughter is pregnant by a fellow student who doesn’t exist. Simon is mugged on the way home from an evening class. His frustrations increase when he is involved in a deadly accident on the homebound shuttle, and treated inhumanely in the health facility. Lillian Sorenson, a coworker, commiserates with Simon. She smuggles Simon and Jordan to a settlement that is the bane of the Advocacy, a place where agendas are unnecessary and autonomy is practiced. The settlement and its leader, Ivan Zimm, are the scapegoats for all the shortcomings in the Urban Complex. Simon learns that his life in his “perfect world” is nothing but stagnation and paralysis. Even more discontented when he returns home, Simon realizes that his job is important only to the Advocacy; his work gives the Advocacy total control of every resident. He feels helpless to change the society in which he is trapped. The price to live in a perfect world is too high.
There are TWO print versions of Life Sketches available, courtesy of the author, A. Ramsay McNeill
What You’ll Win: One print copy of Life Sketches by A. Ramsay McNeill
How to Enter: Leave a comment on this post stating what type of revolution you think is most likely to happen in the next 200 years.
Who Can Enter: USA only
Contest Ends: March 21st. One week from today!
Disclaimer: The winners will have their print book sent to them by the author. The blogger is not responsible for sending the book. Void where prohibited by law.
Note: This short story, which is humorous horror, was originally published in 2011 in the online horror magazine 69 Flavors of Paranoia (volume 3, menu 13). I recently discovered that 69 Flavors of Paranoia is now defunct. Their website and Facebook page are completely gone. An investigation of their twitter finds that they did not delete their twitter but they have not tweeted since evidently announcing on January 13, 2015, that they are now out of commission (view the tweet here). They did not give advance notice to any of the authors who had been published so that we could archive our stories from their zine, nor did they create an archive themselves. They, in fact, completely deleted their entire website; they did not even move it to a free host. It appears that the Internet Archive primarily archived their issue table of contents and not the stories themselves. You can view the table of contents for the issue that contained my story here. Since I never gave up my copyright nor can the story be read in their publication anymore, I have decided to re-publish it here myself. I don’t feel the need to resubmit it to other magazines right now, as I have other projects I am working on. I do hope you all enjoy it. You can view links to the rest of my publications on my Publications page.
“The Tale of Leroy of the Backwoods of Vermont”
Leroy never saw no need to leave these here backwoods of Vermont, kinda like m’self. His mama birthed him here when she was only fifteen years old in the family log cabin right up on this here hill. Her mama done whupped her good when she found out she had a bun in the oven, but her daddy put a stop to it. Every babe is a gift from God. Ayuh. That’s what he’d said. So he was birthed, and his mama done named him Leroy.
Leroy’s folks; they didn’t trust the gubmint none. No sir. The gubmint’s the one that’s been slowly takin Vermont from the good, rignal born, old-timers and handin it over hook line and sinkah to them dammed librals. Leroy’s pappy–he alwuz insisted he married Leroy’s mama on purpose, but Leroy alwuz suspected that it was more of a shot gun affair–anyhow. He alwuz tole Leroy, “Boy! Don’t you take nothin from nobody. We’s bettah than that. We’s take care of ourselves n our own. Don’t you be like them dammed useless welfare folk.”
So his mama done taught him right there at home while his pappy went to work in the mill down the road n Gram cooked n kep house. Sometimes, Grandpappy’d take him out n teach him all’s’bout huntin and fishin and survivin without the food you kin get in a grocery store. Ayuh. Course, ventually, the gubmint done made him go to school, but it was only down at the gubmint school close by, and well Leroy, he warn’t never near the top of his class, if you know what I’m sayin.
I was friends with good ole Leroy back in the day. Ayuh. You might say that. I’d scaped from that gubmint school soon’s they let you. Been out a few years. Leroy, he was gettin close to it. Anyway, Leroy’s folks n mine, they was all on us to do our share fer the families. I’d done took to collectin fiddleheads n beer cans an sech on the side of the road when I warn’t workin in the mill with the rest of the fellers. That sorta thing’s alwuz more fun with a buddy along, so I done asked Leroy to join me on one sech excursion on a…..well durn. It musta been a Sat’day afternoon, cuz I don’t recollect havin gone to church in the mornin.
So, we was out on one of them thar back roads. Y’know, the ones that alwuz have big ole ruts in em n sometimes a farmer or a backwoodsman’ll come puttin along in his ole truck with the sharp edges, nothin like them new trucks with them pussy-ass rounded edges. An the forest, well it just come right on up near the side of the road with just them thar drainage ditches betwixt the two. Makes fer more interestin collectin that way. Sometimes you see a critter or some sech. Well, it was late spring-like. I recollect that, cuz I was collectin me some fiddleheads. They make a durn good supper if you cook em up right good with a big ole dollop of butter, y’know.
Anyway, so I was toolin my way along in one of them drainage ditches that run along the side of them old-fashioned dirt roads. It was real muddy-like. Course I didn’t care cuz you gotta wursh the fiddleheads anyway, an I had me some real good boots. Leroy, he was pokin his way along on the other side of the road. He done got a bit further down than me when he call out to me. “Hey, Bobby!” He done shout it just like that. “Hey, Bobby!”
“Yeah, what?” I done called back to him.
“Lookee here. Lookit what I found.”
I sighed n looked up expectin a whole bunch of nothin. Leroy, he warn’t exactly strong in the head department, if you know what I’m sayin. Well, thar stood Leroy. He was a scrawny kid, Leroy was. Ayuh. Scrawny n tall topped off with a shock of red hair, but not the tempmint to match. Anyhow, thar stood Leroy holdin up a squirrel by the tail. This squirrel, he wuz the deadest durn thing you ever done saw. I mean his middle was squirshed flat. His head and hind end looked like two hills with a valley in-between, an little bits of guts all full of road dirt was stuck to the poor thing’s middle. I done shook my head, cuz, y’know, guts ain’t never a fun thing to see, an I said, “Leroy! Whatchoo doin pickin up the road kill?”
“Road kill?” He let out a he-haw kinda laugh an bent forward. “This ain’t no road kill. This here’s supper!”
“Leroy, you damn fool!” I went back to my bizness, searchin fer the good fiddleheads. “T’ain’t right to eat roadkill. Them critters done suffered enough gettin squirshed to death without you hackin em up and makin one of yer god-awful stews out of em. Sides. Poor critter’s covered in dirt!”
“Bobby, you know better than to waste perfectly good food that you don’t got to pay good money fer.”
I done fixed my gaze back up at him. He was standin there with his feet planted a good couple feet apart lookin the most stubborn I ever done seen him. “I don’t believe you will. Even you ain’t that stupid.”
“It ain’t stupid to eat food God done left in the middle of the road fer ya,” his forehead had got all wrinkled and sech.
I dropped the fiddlehead I’d done plucked into my paper bag. “Aw, now you’re just joshin me. You know better than to eat it now. I can see you thinkin about it.”
Leroy done stomped over from down the road so’s he was leanin down an lookin in my face real close-like. “I’ll go eat it right now, an you kin watch me.”
Well, it ain’t easy to get good entertainment up in these here hills, so I said I’d come watch. Leroy figured he’d just tell his mama he done got hungry and et early. My place was the closest to whar we were, y’see. Ayuh. This place rightchere. He done cooked it up right thar on that same stove. My mama was out in the garden, an my pappy was over visitin his pappy. I called out to my mama that we was hungry and was gonna fix us up some of the food we done found on the road. She just sorta grunted at me. Mama warn’t never much on words. I got myself around and warshed and done cooked my fiddleheads up in that butter like I done tole you before right good while Leroy, he went out back to skin and prep that durn squirrel. He come back in, an he started fricasseein it with some gravy mah mama had left over in the fridge whilst I set myself down and ate me some of them nice buttery fiddleheads.
You warnt to learn how to cook it? I can teach you later. Right, right, first Leroy.
So Leroy he done make himself this fricassee. I was gettin all ready to be mad at him for wastin my mama’s gravy when he done set himself down with a bowl and a spoon, and he just started spoonin that squirrel into his mouth like it was the best dish at the church potluck. The whole time he was starin at me with this…..weird grin. Like he was some coyote who knew the farmer left the chicken coop open, n he was about to get himself an easy all you can eat buffet. I got all froze like watchin that smile in that gaunt face of his. Watchin him eat that thar fricassee.
His spoon, it clanked at the bottom of the bowl, an he done lifted the bowl up and licked it clean. He put that bowl down, n he said, he said, “See? I done tole you. Ain’t nothin wrong with eatin a critter, no sir no way.”
I shook my head. “I still say. T’ain’t right,” an I got up and started to warsh the dishes when Leroy, he made this funny sound. Kinda like he got himself stuck in a zipper. I turned around, n thar’s Leroy, standin next to the table, holdin his bowl with a funny look on his face. I mean, his face was all twisted up. One eyebrow up here, another down there, his mouth in a weird twisty line, his nose wrinkled up.
“Leroy!” I snapped. “What’s wrong with you? If you gonna puke up that damn fricassee, you better get out the back door and out of my mama’s kitchen!”
An that. That’s when he sorta half-pointed at his stomach. It was wigglin. All on its own. Kinda like how a lady with a bun in the oven, her tummy will wiggle when the babe moves around? Well that’s what his was doin, only his belly was flat.
Then Leroy, he done scream and double over. He started screamin out, “Help me! Help me, Bobby! Oh it hurts; it hurts!”
I dropped the dishrag, right there on the floor, right next to the sink. I done grabbed him an tried to help him stand up. “I gotcher,” I told him. “I gotcher.”
His eyes, they got all wide like a little kid’s do when he done first see a scary movie. I dunno why, but I looked down. Inside his stomach, thar was a shape of a squirrel. I mean you could see the outline of his head all’s the way down to his fluffy little tail. Seein that, well, I done lost my grip on Leroy, and he fell down on the floor, writhin in pain. He looked just like a snake. Ayuh. He let out the biggest durn yell I ever heard. I think the only time I ever heard one close was that time Frank down the road done got his foot stuck in a bear trap. My mama, she must’ve started to yell an come runnin then, but I didn’t notice. No way, no how. Cuz right then a squirrel covered with blood an mucous an bile an whatever all else was in Leroy’s stomach done come bustin out of his gut. Bits o’ Leroy hung from his teeth, an his beady black eyes done give me the once-over. I ain’t never seen nothin so frightenin in all my born days then nor since. No way. That squirrel, well then that squirrel, it shot me a look. That look said, it said, “Tit for tat. Tit for tat.” Then it skedaddled on out the door.
Leroy, he was writhin on the floor, graspin at that hole in his stomach with one hand an reachin out to me with the other. Well, I didn’t know what to do. Just then, my mama, she come runnin in an see the blood an guts all over her nice, clean floor. Then she sees Leroy with his guts pourin out of him, n she starts screamin. “What done this? What happened, Bobby? Tell me what happened!”
“It was a squirrel, mama. A squirrel et its way out of him!”
Leroy, he was slowin down with the movin an the writhin, n he let out a gasp n collapsed back on the floor. His eyes hangin open.
My mama. She believed me that a squirrel done it, but we knew them thar cops from down the hill wouldn’t, so we just tole them that Leroy done gutted himself like them Japanese soldier fellers do sometimes. I dunno if they believed us or not. Truth be tole, no one from down off the hill missed Leroy that much.
But us? Us good ole-fashioned Vermont folk up on the hill? Oh we remember Leroy. Ayuh. And that, that’s why not even the mangiest, strangest lady or feller up on this hill, no matter how hungry, no matter how skeered of the gubmint, they won’t never eat no roadkill.
© Amanda McNeil 2011
Penny Farthing, member of the wealthy elite, is full of tons of energy she mostly uses to ride her motorized high wheel bicycle and collect robotic butterflies. Unfortunately, her clockwork heart doesn’t always entirely keep up with her. Plus she has to wind it. Much more troubling to her, though, is the fact that the creator of her clockwork heart, Calvin Warwick, is now on trial for murdering dozens of people he abducted from the street to practice on before giving her her new heart. When there is an explosion at her family’s factory and Warwick escapes prison immediately after being found guilty of murder (oh, and her parents disappear), Penny and her twin brother and two of their closest friends embark on a journey of intrigue to bring her parents home and Warwick to justice.
I rarely am actually interested in anything in the Kindle First email (a once-monthly email that informs Kindle owners as to four books they can access ahead of publication for free). I am also not often into most steampunk books. It’s an idea I love, but I often find isn’t executed as well as it should be. When this one popped up, though, I was intrigued for its transhumanist explorations. The book definitely explores the concept of transhumanism via the steampunk idea of augmentation, but it mostly is a story about a young girl’s first love and a bit of a mystery/thriller search for a murderer.
The basic premise that a teenager finds out that the medical device that saved her life was the result of the brutal torture and murder of dozens of people is awesome. This is a more extreme version of the types of realizations that young adults often have. (For instance, I will never forget the first time I realized that sometimes scientists must experiment on innocent animals in the pursuit of cures and the ethical quandary that resulted for me). It works quite well because it is set in an alternate universe. This allows the reader to have some distance to view the ethical issue through but the alternate universe is still similar enough to our own that it is relatable. Penny is always firmly against any unwilling human experimentation (as she should be) but she is left wondering how much responsibility and guilt she should feel for the tortures and murders when she herself was indirectly responsible. She is so grateful to be not only alive but able to function better than she could before. But she is also traumatized at the thought of how she got there. This is the book’s real strength, and I am glad it is out there for the YA audience to read. That said, there are other elements of the book that just don’t quite work for me.
First, the level of steampunk is sometimes a bit ridiculous and isn’t explained well enough. For instance, the world seems to have only robotic butterflies and horses. Why is that? For that matter, it’s deeply confusing to me why this culture would develop a robotic horse and carriage, particularly when they also have motorized bicycles (I won’t call them motorcycles, because they definitely are not nearly so eloquent nor sexy as motorcycles). It’s not a far leap to car from there. The reasons behind the steampunk features are simply never explored. They just are. This may be fine to some readers, but I found it dissatisfying. I particularly really needed to know why the animals are robots.
Second, the society Penny lives in is clearly meant to be a parallel to the British Empire in its heyday. It is highly stratified, classist, regal, and feels oppressive (except for Penny and her family of course *eye-roll*). I have no problem with a book containing this type of society but it is not only never questioned it seems to be held up as an excellent way of living. It’s great that the military just jumps right on in and solves everyone’s problems (including abducting civilians up to their sky fort). It’s oh so wonderful that Penny’s family has all this wealth. It’s tragic for Penny’s family that they lose some product in the factory explosion but the workers and their injuries and lives are barely touched upon. It ends up feeling like whenever any of the elite people in the book (and most of the main and secondary characters are elite, with the exception of one young girl who is saved from her poor destitute life by the military) discusses anything bad about being the lower class, they do so in a “See, I’m a good person because I care about them” tone but not out of any sincerity. None of them have any desire to actually change or fix anything. Indeed, one of the main characters excitedly jumps right in when they are asked to become an honorary member of the military. The book has the tone that the only thing wrong with this alternate universe is the fact that Warwick is a very bad man who experiments on people he snatched from the street. Everything else is fine! When it clearly is not.
Finally, I just don’t particularly care for the main character, Penny Farthing. First there’s her name, which is exactly the same as the name of the style of bicycle she rides (only motorized) (info on the penny farthing). That’s just a bit too cutesy for me. Second, she is a person who is oblivious to her privilege of wealth and access to medical care, even when it is smacking her in the face. She never learns, changes, or grows (beyond falling in love). She briefly realizes “hey, maybe things have been rough on my twin brother too,” but she glosses over that quite quickly. She also eats incessantly in a way that reminds me very much of The Gilmore Girls (here is a great article that talks about why this trope is annoying as hell). Basically, she eats whatever she wants, whenever she wants, primarily junk food, and everyone finds it “oh so adorable” that she is constantly hungry. Oh that Penny Farthing! And she does this all while staying the classic western media ideal of what is attractive! Without working out! So basically she never does that annoying thing women can sometimes do which is to eat a salad and never eat a burger because she’s watching her figure (which men find annoying) but she also is definitely not fat (which men also find annoying). She is the best of both worlds. In Penny’s case, this mystery is explained as the fact that she needs to eat to keep her clockwork heart going. The “science” of that drives me absolutely batty, by the way. My best guess is that the author was possibly going for the idea of how some people, such as people with diabetes, need to eat at evenly spaced times to keep their blood sugar even. However, no one would tell a person with diabetes to eat primarily sugary baked goods at those intervals, which is what Penny mostly eats. Also, diabetes does not equal heart disease so…..the “science” of this makes very little sense. It reads as an excuse to use the Gilmore Girls junk food trope. Finally, it really bothers me that she collects the robotic butterflies. Yes, I know people do this in the real world with real butterflies, but it has always struck me as cruel, and I think it says a lot about her character that she seems so cool with trapping what in her world are perceived of as essentially living creatures for her own amusement and collection.
All of that said, the plot and mystery of Warwick, his escape, and finding Penny’s parents is fast-paced and unpredictable without ever verging into the land of plots that make no sense. It’s an interesting world with an engaging plot built around a cool premise. Where it is weak is primarily in the elements that were either not sufficiently well thought-out, explored, or explained, such as the robotic animals, the functioning of Penny’s heart, etc…
Overall, this has an interesting premise and an engaging plot. It unfortunately doesn’t explore the workings of the society or the steampunk it has created enough, and the main character can be a bit annoying and hard to root for at times. However, those who love steampunk with a dash of mystery and romance will likely enjoy adding it to their repertoire, provided they are ok with the issues outlined above.
3 out of 5 stars
Source: Amazon Kindle First (Free copy of the book provided by Amazon to those with kindles who request it. Requesters are under no obligation to provide a review).