The last time I encountered a story that used the legend of Prince Madoc as inspiration for the story, it was A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L’Engle. Apparently, it was a popular legend in the Colonial days. The story goes that long before Columbus ”discovered” America, a Welsh prince came to the shores of North America with some of his people. Rumors of Native Americans speaking Welsh and a lost kingdom of Welshmen fueled all sorts of searches and offers of reward for their discovery. Though in our reality, nothing ever came of the wild story, writers have taken the threads of the legend to inspire their own fantastic stories. Matthew J. Kirby takes his readers into a an alternate Colonial America where the threat of the French and Indian war is looming and a remarkable group of men have devised a plan . . .
Billy Bartram is about to undertake the adventure of a lifetime. His father, naturalist John Bertram and the renowned Benjamin Franklin are anxious that the French are ready to make their move and threaten the British colonies. In order to get the jump on the French and try and secure allies against the threat, a singular group of men from the Philosopher’s Society will embark on a flying ship in search of a legend. Billy can scarcely believe his luck at being included in the mission as his father’s assistant, but things don’t go quite as imagined for the intrepid explorers. Dangerous wildlife, violent storms and the whims of the crew make a risky journey into a deadly one, while the French are closing in. Kirby’s story is one of adventure, myth and fantasy woven into the backdrop of actual history.
Kirby isn’t shy about rewriting whole parts of the U.S. history for this story. While we meet characters of historical context (most notably Ben Franklin and Washington) many of the inventions and the frontier creatures that our explorers meet are not consistent with that historical period. The author has made good use of a variety of myths, from the Philosopher’s Stone, to the Fountain of Youth and paired this with wild legends of a Welsh kingdom in the frontier lands. Kirby’s landscape is reminiscent of the Frontier Magic series by Patricia Wrede, but without the slower pacing, quieter action and extra detail. While the setting is critical to the story and its outcome, the author’s main focus is his characters and the interactions between them.
Billy is our protagonist in this tale, and it is his journey, both physical and emotional, that readers are meant to follow. At the outset of our story, Billy is in utter awe of his father and has no doubt he wants to be like him. But as the journey gets underway, our hero quickly discovers sides to his father that he had not expected . . . and areas where they don’t agree. The changing interaction between Billy and his father is one of the main plot arcs in the novel. Where the alternate history and steampunk styled inventions might not be familiar to middle grade readers, Billy’s struggle to come to grips with who he is and how that differs from his parent will be one most kids can latch on to and identify with in some part. The other crew members on our flying ship are also vividly imagined, and complex individuals with conflicting motives and interests. My one disappointment in the character building has to remain with the single female character that is present in this story. I don’t believe I’m spoiling much by mentioning young Jane, since she’s clearly pictured on the cover of the book. Jane’s character never seems to fully take shape in the story and there is at least one glaring moment where her ineptitude puts the entire mission at risk. It may be I was more bothered by this than a younger reader would be, but my overall feeling is that Jane is used to conveniently forward the plot and give our character a friend of similar age without giving her enough of her own personality.
This book moves forward at a fairly fast clip that keeps us moving from crisis to crisis in fairly short order. While my adult self does tend to prefer a more leisurely pace for storytelling and events, this may work well for younger readers who prefer the constant action. The breathless adventure with its historical fantasy flavor manages to pack quite a punch for such a short book. Obviously there’s more than a little “steampunk” to this story (it’s more good evidence that steampunk has made its way firmly into the middle grade fiction) the flying ship on the cover of the book, the explorations of electricity, the creative weapons and inventions of our philosopher crew. The author clearly feels at home with the genre and is willing to explore it, with quite delightful results. I was thoroughly entertained . Reader’s who enjoyed the Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three (2010) and Icefall (2011) should definitely check this one out.(less)
A delightful bit of pulp fun. Such a pleasure to read after slogging through a few urban fantasies that took themselves too seriously and "cerebral" S...moreA delightful bit of pulp fun. Such a pleasure to read after slogging through a few urban fantasies that took themselves too seriously and "cerebral" SF that, IMO, was just tedious. Just a word of warning up front. The title should give readers a clue of how truly over the top this novel is, but in case it hasn't: Giant jelly monsters, transdimensional catpeople, Venusian warriors, giant insects, invasions from Saturn and mysterious death cults. Those are just a few of the things readers will run into in this story.
Emperor Mollusk is a villain who has achieved his goal of world domination . . . and has become bored with it all. But retiring isn't really an option when assassins are targeting you and bringing your own evil creations into play against you. Now Mollusk must defeat his enemies and win the day . . .
This was a romp. I enjoyed it far too much to consider putting it down and read it straight through. I will admit the plotting got a little . . . twisty at the end. Though that usually happens when time travel is involved. If your a fan of B movie SF and pulp fiction about monsters and mad scientists, this will probably be worth your time to read, especially if you need a break from all things serious.
Seems like I may have to look up the author's other works and read them!(less)
This is the first novel included in Young Miles. I've read it three times now and loved it every time, but I keep forgetting I've read it and losing t...moreThis is the first novel included in Young Miles. I've read it three times now and loved it every time, but I keep forgetting I've read it and losing track of which Vorkosigan books I have yet to read. I think these books about Miles' youth are some of my favorite.(less)
A middle grade steampunk time-travel adventure! I read Cody's Powerless a few years ago and loved it. He hasn't lost his touch, that much is evident....moreA middle grade steampunk time-travel adventure! I read Cody's Powerless a few years ago and loved it. He hasn't lost his touch, that much is evident. The subject matter of this book may be less familiar to young readers than the superhero realm of the last book, but I think any middle grade reader looking for some wild adventure may find this a good read. Lots of fun!
And there's room for more stories with our heroes in the future!(less)
There are few authors that can leave me with no idea what the story is going to be and how it will go. Most stories generally have a framework that ta...moreThere are few authors that can leave me with no idea what the story is going to be and how it will go. Most stories generally have a framework that takes me all of a chapter to recognize--not that I mind. But I can't do it with Hardinge's work beyond the most basic recognition of a con artist caper story. I never know what's going to happen or how the characters will react. Hardinge keeps me reading with no ground under me to expect: I'm running hard to keep up with Mosca and Clent as surprised by the unfolding of events as they are.
This a breathless run of a story that nevertheless has a richly constructed setting that sparks the imagination and a constant flow of marvelous words and descriptions. This is one book that never hesitates in its love of vocabulary. And yet it works. Our charming yet morally ambiguous characters get enmeshed in all sorts of plots and treachery, inadvertantly touching on the key power players of the city, find their way through with humor, drama and intelligence, and provide a satisfying ending. It's marvelous fun with a rich sauce of language. Fantasy is the only genre fit, seeing as it's an other-world history, though without magic or magical creatures. It's not a book for everyone, but for the right reader it'll be reading joy.
One last thing I appreciate about Hardinge is a lack of "bang the reader over the head with a theme or ideology". Hardinge explores Mosca's lack of belief in the gods of her world without making it into a preaching point, which is one of my main complaints about Philip Pullman's Golden Compass series. While I don't have to agree with an ideology or position to read and enjoy a story, I do not like to feel like the writer is shouting about it in my ear so loudly that I no longer can comfortably read the story.
I'll look forward to future offerings from this writer. She's a true delight.(less)
**spoiler alert** Found this to be a rather fun read of kids battling an evil mad scientist type. Telling the story as though they were blog posts rec...more**spoiler alert** Found this to be a rather fun read of kids battling an evil mad scientist type. Telling the story as though they were blog posts recounting the events is an interesting idea. Overall I thought that plus the concrete description text were appealing additions.
I did find that the storytelling conceit broke down at times when events were described that our protagonist wasn't actual present for. Those times seemed to fall into third person perspectives that didn't jive with the blog format near so much. I feel like that could have been tweaked a bit, and maybe resolved with some of the other characters posting.
My biggest issue, however, is how the protagonist makes a big deal out of how he is living in hiding under another name now, yet especially at the end of the story he's giving away details that could help to easily locate him, including that his friend Jamie is living with her aunt and uncle 20 minutes away and the name of his teacher. For someone so consumed with staying hidden, and with a supercomputer for a guardian, this slip of info seems nonsensical.(less)
Adventure on the high seas, assassins, pirates, curses, enemies at every turn and --oh yes--mice. Mice of all sizes shapes and uses populate this book...moreAdventure on the high seas, assassins, pirates, curses, enemies at every turn and --oh yes--mice. Mice of all sizes shapes and uses populate this book. It's fun, fast moving, fanciful and action-packed. Not bad overall for a second book in a series, though readers will now have to wait for the next one to see this tale through.
Most of the plotting is not terribly surprising (other than the mice) but the flow and flavor make it work well enough to overlook that.(less)