Saturday, November 29, 2014

Book Review: The Inventor's Secret by Andrea Cremer

I was pleased to see this as a new acquisition on our school library shelves.  I hadn't heard of it, but the blurb sounded promising.

Sixteen-year-old Charlotte and her fellow refugees have scraped out an existence on the edge of Britain’s industrial empire. Though they live by the skin of their teeth they have their health (at least when they can find enough food and avoid the Imperial Labor Gatherers) and each other. When a new exile with no memory of his escape from the coastal cities or even his own name seeks shelter in their camp he brings new dangers with him and secrets about the terrible future that awaits all those who have struggled has to live free of the bonds of the empire’s Machineworks.

The Inventor’s Secret is the first book of a YA steampunk series set in an alternate nineteenth-century North America where the Revolutionary War never took place and the British Empire has expanded into a global juggernaut propelled by marvelous and horrible machinery.

And it was steampunk!  Obviously, I had to read it.
So I did.  Until 2:00 AM.
My conclusion?  Meh.

The book's greatest strength is the steampunk.  Seriously, this Cremer person DOES steampunk setting right!  We have a whole cave town under what appears to be Niagra Falls, invention rooms, an electro-magnetic gun that kills huge rats, the coolest submarine ever, airships, a floating city (NYC, re-imagined), a tinker town, a Wizard-of-Oz-type gypsy/palmreader, a metal forest, a hive of slightly-bonkers inventors, rebellion against the Empire, air-pressure-powered elevators, a gigantic Ferris wheel (before Ferris wheels were invented, but oh well), and more.  This is steampunk to the Nth degree!
So why did I not fall in love with the book?
Well, Cremer's greatest weakness is inconsistency.  Frankly, a lot of things did not make sense, even within the world of the book.  Let's take this cave community where about 2 dozen teens and children live, hiding from the evil Empire while their parents are off fighting -- and apparently never check in.  The cave itself has plumbing -- with sewage drains and hot water -- supposedly added by earlier groups of kids.  Okaaaayyyy.  Also, there are no adults to teach the kids how to run their own mini-society so they don't go all Lord of the Flies, but the kids just "naturally" follow whoever decides to be the leader.  Riiiiiggght.  (Note: has Cremer ever dealt with groups of kids before???)  There's no in-fighting.  And no jealousy.  Suuurre. *rolls eyes*  Plus, Cremer never explains where they get their food.  She has them raid dumps for scrap metal to make the spiffy submarine and such, but they eat cheese and bread.  Where does it come from?  Are they making their own?  If so, where do they get the flour and the milk?  Or are they stealing the food?  If so, how is it that no one has ever caught or noticed kids repeatedly stealing food for at least a decade?  And why has the constantly-watching Empire never noticed the smoke from cooking fires and laboratories?  Why are these kids not living off forest animals and foraged berries or the fungus Cremer mentions grows in the cave?
Then there's Charlotte, the protagonist.  Where do all of her spiffy corsets and leather dresses come from?  Who's making those?  If it's one of the kids, how did a child learn to sew such difficult stuff?
And when Charlotte has to fake being a fine lady in NYC, she seems to learn all about society in a day or two.  No other girl considers her a rival (not even the girl who obviously should).  No one notices her social faux pas.  No comment is made when she shows up to make her debut in high society in a dress that is at least 25 years out of style.  (Granted, Charlotte would not know it was out of style, and perhaps the military leader who hustles her into that dress to scoot her to the event in a hurry before his brother finds out doesn't know much about ladies' dresses.  But no girls or their mamas at the ball laugh or gossip or notice her.  Look, this is the social equivalent of Kate Middleton's showing up at a Royal event with an 80s mullet.  People WOULD NOTICE.  But no one does.  What the heck?  Cremer sets this in 1816.  Has she never read Pride and Prejudice??!!)
Now, Charlotte's incredibly bad taste in guys can be set down to hormones, so that's believable (although I wanted to slap her a couple of times), but she has a major, unexplained reaction when she meets a woman who, grieving over the death of her son, left her husband to join a religious commune.  Charlotte freaks out in a rant about how horrible the woman is.  Yet Charlotte sees absolutely nothing wrong with the fact that she knows a couple of dozen children abandoned by their parents who are fighting for the rebellion.  So, she finds it socially acceptable for parents to leave children unattended for a decade but socially unacceptable for a woman to leave her healthy and employed husband for a different kind of life.  Her reaction is completely unexplained in the book.

Also, the book is clearly part of a series.  The ending of the book is really just the ending of a chapter, and there are a couple of nasty cliffhangers just dangling there.

So, overall, my recommendation would be don't read it yet.  Wait until the whole series is out, then read it as one reads a cozy mystery or a beach novel: don't expect too much.  This is not a tightly-written book, but rather an exhibition of steampunk ideas in a sloppy plot.

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