What’s interesting about the idea of genre is that it isn’t a perfect set of delineations that allow books to fall neatly into one area or another. Many books skirt more than one genre at a time. The mixtures and crossovers lead to stories that are space westerns, dark fantasy, steampunk, etc. In the case of Stuart Gibbs’ newest offering, we have a plot arc that is a mystery set in a science fictional setting.
Twelve-year-old Dashiell Gibson is one of the first kids to live on the moon. He’s a bit of celebrity back home because of it–every wants to know what it’s like to live on Moon Base Alpha. But living on the first moon colony isn’t all that wonderful. There isn’t a lot to do, the meals are less than inspiring and the toilet facilities are, well, a real pain in the you know what. So, most of Dash’s time is spent being bored . . . until one of the lunar scientists turns up dead–and Dash is certain he was murdered. He knows that Dr. Holtz wouldn’t have gone out onto the lunar surface with his headgear not properly attached, and he suspects the doctor was about to make an important announcement to the moon colony. It’s apparently an announcement that someone else would kill to prevent.
Now Dash and his allies are hunting for clues and trying to avoid the adults who just want to put the whole thing under wraps. But what Dash might discover in his investigation might just put his own life at risk . . .
Stuart Gibbs has created a nicely approachable science fiction landscape that manages to combine a decent amount of science and technology without descending into technobabble or long winded explanations. Instead, our near future moon colony is seen from the restless and jaded eyes of one of it’s tween residents–one who really hates having to use the special toilets that constantly jam. This first person story makes the idea of a moon colony seem both believable, and a tad pedestrian, but in a good way. This is no far flung future dream, but a grounded look at what it might really be like to live in isolated and cramped quarters on the moon. There are mean kids and friends, suspicious adults and clueless guardians. Dash has to navigate all these relationships to find his proof that the doc was murdered.
This whodunnit in space is fairly well played, though I think without the exotic setting the mystery would not be quite as adventurous or interesting. Readers who enjoy mysteries as well as those interested in science fiction will likely enjoy this–especially if they enjoy stories with a humorous first person perspective.
My main issue with the book is one that is difficult to explain because it’s also an extreme spoiler, so you’ll forgive me if I’m purposefully vague. I’m not a fan of the particular type of plot twist/reveal used in this story–particularly not when so much hinges on it. I found that while I was really on board with most of the story from start to finish, this particular end plot point and close to the story really threw me off. In both tone and expectation, it really changed the overall feel of the book and made the conclusion feel like a different story altogether. While I believe the plot twist may not hit everyone that way, those who are faithfully following the mystery and expect a very logical wrap up could be thrown by this reveal. It sends the book a little off the rails from what I expected it to be.
Still, if anyone can name another middle grade science fiction adventure book with a bi-racial protagonist, I’d be surprised. (Pleased, but surprised). What Gibbs has created here will entertain readers who want fast-paced science fiction that keeps a positive viewpoint towards the future. Mystery readers who don’t mind an unusual setting or are already fans of the author’s work will likely snap it up and devour it as well. Given it’s accessible protagonist and fairly grounded, near future story, it should also attract a fair number of non-genre readers as well, which is always a good way of introducing new audiences to the realm of speculative fiction.
Stuart Gibbs is the author of several middle grade mystery titles, including Belly Up and Poached, but this appears to be his first foray into science fiction....more
If I told you that this was the second book featuring a young person covered in hair and living in a freak show in Victorian England for middle grade readers that I’ve read this year, would you be surprised? It seems Victorian fiction is one of the hot trends for 2013 . It’s a fascinating trend, because most of the stories I’ve read set in these times have either distinct fantasy or steampunk elements used in the storytelling. Of course, this is particularly exciting for me, since it means they then fall under the banner of speculative fiction.
A few years ago if I’d even mentioned steampunk, it would described a fairly small idiosyncratic subgenre of fantasy/science fiction books, mostly written for adults. Outside of Japanese animated movies, you’d find hardly anything that could be labelled steampunk for kids. Then something happened. Some strange alignment of an interest in the Victorian era and a love for all sorts of goggles and steam machines and mechanized top hats began to drift into the young adult genre . . . and now it’s safe to say it has reached the middle grade fiction.
Wild Boy by Rob Lloyd Jones is the story of a young man who was born covered in hair and has spent most of his life being treated like a monster. But the outward appearance of a freak hides the brilliance of a deductive mind that sees and absorbs all the details of the unforgiving world of Victorian England that he inhabits. Living in a freak show surroundings, Wild Boy takes some small pleasure in being able to travel and observe different people and places in the moments when he is not kept inside. When a man from the circus is killed violently and the circumstantial evidence points to Wild Boy, there’s nothing he can say to convince others of his innocence–all they see is the monster. Desperate to escape hanging for a crime he did not commit, he puts his deductive skills to work in ferreting out the real murder. Solving the murder will take him on a path that is very dark indeed, uncovering macabre experiments, dangerous enemies and terrible betrayals. In the end it will be Wild Boy’s mind and heart put to the test in solving this murder mystery!
It’s clear that the author has some love of the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, and this book readily reflects that love. Wild Boy’s observation skills and keen reasoning are reminiscent of the great Sherlock Holmes. Despite his abilities, Wild Boy still has to deal with the fact that others don’t see beyond his outward hairy appearance and a fierce temper that has come with being mistreated his whole life. Underneath the fur and beyond the brilliant mind, Wild Boy is still a boy who is troubled and traumatized and wishes he looked like everyone else. The author does an admirable job of writing this character so that readers can identify with him and become invested in his story.
The setting is pure Victorian London, full of all the atmospheric elements that define the place. The author clearly knows how to tell a historically placed story–readers can believe in the setting and begin to comprehend it without having to have a working knowledge of what London was like at the time. There’s a good balance here between setting the story in place and avoiding too many references or place names that would be alien to younger reader, or one unfamiliar with Victorian times.
While there are plenty of genres at work in this particular novel, the main story arc is the mystery itself. Overall I thought this was well handled, balancing deductive insights with action and danger and leading up to the final revelations. Remember I mentioned steampunk? this book has more than a little steampunk woven into the mystery that is at the center of the story. It moves the book out of the merely historically fantastic and sets it firmly into the ”Victorian science fiction” universe.
I quite enjoyed this read overall. My only real issues are with the fact that Wild Boy’s speech patterns tend to fluctuate. Much of the time he appears to speak a more formal English than that of typical lower class, but every so often there’s some street slang or pattern to his dialog. I’m not certain it’s entirely believable that Wild Boy would speak a more formal style, given that he wouldn’t have had much exposure to it. While I could imagine that he could adopt accents and manners rather easily given his observation abilities, I don’t know if his speaking is consistent with his situation in life. Still, I think it a small thing in an otherwise solid reading experience.
This might spark your interest if you are a fan of Splendors and Glooms by Laura Amy Schlitz, though this focuses on mystery more than horror. Middle grade readers who are interested in the adventures of Sherlock Holmes might also want to check this one out!