I admit I wasn’t sure how I would do with this book. I absolutely loved The Factory Girl Trilogy – review here – https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2018/05/13/the-factory-girl-trilogy-review/. Moving into a book that follows on from that but clearly wasn’t going to have my favourite character in, gave me a fair few feelings. As a younger reader I had bailed from series at times like these. Older and wiser me is more willing to have a go, and I regret nothing!
My other area of uncertainty was that this is an alternate history novel set around the First World War. It’s a period I know a fair bit about and find highly emotive. Would I be ok with WW1 re-imagined to include automata and other devices? For me, Stephen said everything that needed to be said about the grim realities of this awful war. He didn’t downplay the horrors, or sanitise anything and the bringing in of Steampunk elements did not feel disrespectful. As with The Factory Girl Trilogy, the fantastical elements were used to highlight and explore the period issues, not to write over them. And so I was as miserable in the trenches section as I needed to be.
I will freely admit that I wasn’t in the best headspace for reading anything when I read this. Normally I adore books where I have no idea what the story shape is or what’s going on. I love to be surprised. For the first three quarters of the book I had no idea where it was going, what kind of story it was, what it meant, and I flailed a bit. I think this is a book that will greatly benefit from being read in the right headspace, don’t pick it up if you want to be comforted by familiarity. However, at the three quarters mark, give or take, there is a revelation that blew me away. Suddenly the narrative crystallised, everything made sense, and I read the last quarter pretty much flat out in a state of utter delight, being frequently surprised. Read this book when you want to go on an adventure.
The underlying themes in this story are highly pertinent. This is a story about how we see ourselves, and whether we are willing to find out how others see us. This is a tale that questions the wisdom of living in an echo chamber and champions the need for different perspectives. It’s also a protest against all forms of absolutism. There are always exceptions. There should always be room for nuance and difference. When people insist there is only one truth, only one way to live, or love, or think about things, nothing good can come of it.
With war in Europe as the backdrop, this is without a doubt a book that has a lot to say about Brexit and the state of our culture, letting us view the present day from the perspective of more than a century ago.
(And yes, that is a Tom Brown cover)