May 2008

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

History, with a Twist

Author Jenny Davidson starts her novel The Explosionist off with a bang -- literally -- as fifteen-year-old Sophie and her classmates learn about dynamite in their chemistry class. Sophie lives in a Scotland that is estranged from nearby England and linked with several other northern counties in a confederation known as the Hanseatic League. (This group is historically accurate, although it occurred centuries before Sophie’s 1938 setting.) Sophie seems to lead a quiet life at her typical all-girls boarding school, which she leaves for weekend visits to her legal guardian, her great-Aunt Tabitha. Soon enough odd things start to happen -- a psychic at an evening presentation at her aunt’s home targets Sophie with a bizarre message, and her chemistry teacher’s behavior suggests that his explosive talents might be aiding a terrorist group that uses suicide bombings. Sophie soon finds her life turned upside down and she begins to question both the actions of those she cares about and Scotland’s political leaders.

In this incredibly unique version of history, the lynchpin is that Napoleon Bonaparte was the victor in Waterloo. This has radically changed Europe, resulting in different federations of nations and a World War I that extended for years longer than our own. Spiritualism is also a key part of this world, embraced on a level similar to that of the U.S. in the mid 19th century but in this case actually successful. Sophie finds herself able to communicate with the dead, which results in a few emotionally intense moments and, after a murder, only raises more questions then it answers.

Davidson has a tight grip on her history here and weaves multiple storylines into one as she leads Sophie down a path of self awareness that includes revelations about her deceased parents and politically powerful aunt. She is forced into a harrowing discovery about psychological experiments that is gut wrenching, and as the plot develops readers will find themselves questioning more than once just what it means to be loyal to your country. There is a political conspiracy, more than one murder, a social conspiracy and the threat of looming war. The best thing about The Explosionist though is that while it is all those things, it is also a wonderful story about friendship, growing up and even romance. Consider this passage as Sophie and a roommate discuss what they will do after school:

“The horrible thing,” Sophie said to Nan as they hurriedly dried themselves and put on their pajamas, “is that we’re being forced to choose now about things that really should be able to wait till we’re older. It’s hard to say what’s worse, the suddenness of having to choose or the chance that if we don’t make up our minds soon, the choice will be taken away from us altogether.”

That could just as easily be written for any young person today, facing the confusion of college and work and all the expectations of those who think they should know immediately what most adults are still figuring out decades later. It seems we always want our young people to know, even when we know so little ourselves.

Davidson’s novel is by far one of the smartest YA titles I have read in quite some time and I would love to see it in on high school reading lists. I guarantee it would spark the sort of discussion that is rarely found when talking about Shakespeare (as impressive as the Bard can be). This is a book that demands deep thinking of its readers but promises suspense, intrigue and surprises at every turn. I read far too many weak titles in pulling this column together each month but The Explosionist is one of the strongest books I’ve read in ages and I thoroughly enjoyed both this character and her world. It ends with all sorts of possibilities for a sequel; here’s hoping Davidson is hard at work on Sophie’s next adventure.

In Elizabeth Bear’s New Amsterdam a trip across the Atlantic in 1899 means traveling by zeppelin to the city of New Amsterdam, the “jewel of British North America.” This is a world where America was never born and more intriguingly, sorcery is a valuable commodity to be used both by those who seek to commit crimes and those determined to solve them. Bear includes this magic sparingly, showing the crimes in her interconnected stories to be more in common with greed, revenge and political machinations then anything of a mystical nature. The magic gives her world a sinister twist, however, and the inclusion of a vampire detective and sorceress cop (or “officer of the Crown”) gives the book a nice dose of tension. Anything can happen around New Amsterdam and whether or not Sebastian and Abigail can sort out the good guys from the bad is anyone’s guess. The bigger issue, though, is if anyone wants the crimes solved at all, and just how much danger the two unorthodox heroes will find themselves in to get to the truth.

There is a lot to love about the world Bear has created with New Amsterdam. The zeppelin journey alone is first rate and populated with a cast of eccentrics that would put Dame Agatha to shame. (I immediately flashed back to the Orient Express while reading this story, in the best possible way.) Sebastien is a tortured hero and despite all the loyalty extended his way by teen sidekick Jack, he still feels guilty over the life they have together and the manner in which Jack must help him to stay alive. (He’s a vampire, Jack is a red-blooded young man -- do the math.) Their intense and complicated relationship is just one layer in a book that seems to revel in throwing characters together and pulling them apart in all sorts of fascinating ways. Everybody has an angle and a past and a questionable set of loyalties (except Jack) so the reader has no idea who they should trust. In each story though, as mysteries are solved and culprits exposed, the larger arc of the struggle for control of the North America colony becomes clear.

There are several historic cameos in New Amsterdam, including a brilliant portrayal of Nikola Tesla in the final story, “Lumière.” Bear has a firm grip on fact throughout the book and plays with it mercilessly, showing tensions between France and England, between the English politicians and the North American colonists, and between those who use magic and those who fear it. The plots and subplots move fast and furious providing readers with an excellent collection of murder mysteries that all serve to stoke the fires of the larger political storyline. Sebastien’s inner conflict makes him the classic tormented type, while Abigail, a 21st century women trapped in a 19th century body, makes wrong choices in love but right ones in crime; smart girls everywhere -- rejoice!

Teen readers are going to identify first and foremost with Jack (a teenager himself) but there’s enough murder and mayhem to keep anyone who loves good mysteries riveted. This is a rich read that will easily draw you in. With elements of gaslight melodrama, Victorian horror, and carefully crafted political thriller, New Amsterdam is a gorgeously creepy entry into a place that never was but certainly would have been awesome to visit.

With The Other Teddy Roosevelts Mike Resnick presents seven stories about the former president that should delight anyone with an interest in history or larger-than-life characters. As he explains in his introduction, Roosevelt is perfect for alt-history as his real life was so incredible that it is not hard to believe him accomplishing even more amazing things if given the opportunity:

When he left office in 1909 with a list of accomplishments equal in magnitude to any Galactic President in science fiction, he immediately packed his bags (and his rifles) and went on the first major safari ever put together, spending eleven months gathering specimens for the American and Smithsonian Museums. He wrote up his experiences in African Game Trails, still considered one of the half-dozen most important books on the subject ever published. Clearly he had a lot more in common with science fictional hunters from Gerry Carlyle to Nicobar Land.

Resnick takes Roosevelt and places him in various locations that fit into the true story of his life but are entirely fictional. (Oh, but if only some of them were true!) In “1888: Redchapel,” Roosevelt is in London, a city in the grip of Jack the Ripper. A ton of authors have taken on this legendary crime story but Resnick gives it more than a few twists and turns as his protagonist takes on the guise of stalwart detective who prowls the foggy streets at night, seeking clues in the bodies of the victims. He deconstructs the case in letters home to his beloved wife Edith, which give the reader glimpses not only into Roosevelt’s mind but also into the historic facts. What’s really interesting here is that Resnick explores not only crime scenes but the larger social issues surrounding the poverty of the Whitechapel area. In the end the case is solved, but Roosevelt leaves London deeply disturbed about the lives of the people he has met, a feeling Resnick reiterates in a final letter: “One would like to think that if one’s life didn’t count for much, at least one’s death did -- and if Whitechapel can either be cleansed or razed to the ground, then perhaps, just perhaps, these five unfortunate women did not die totally in vain.”

Of course history points to another conclusion, where poverty continued to reign in the area and the murders, long unsolved, have disappeared into an urban myth that dwells more on the killer then it ever did on the killed.

From London to New York with “1897: Two Hunters in Manhattan,” a story set when Roosevelt was the city’s Police Commissioner. This one has a vampire and allows Roosevelt to utter his famous line “Speak softly and carry a big stick” with a whole new level of significance. In “1898: The Roosevelt Dispatches” he comes face to face with something from another planet shortly after his successful charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish-American War. It is written in a series of diary excerpts, letters, and a portion of a monograph submitted to the American Museum of Natural History. In each Roosevelt recounts the events surrounding the killing of a mysterious creature in Cuba and seeks assistance in identifying it. In the end he finds himself planning a whole new war, the likes of which he could never have imagined. But who better to take on an interplanetary invasion then one of the greatest hunters in American history? Clearly, Resnick knows his character’s strengths and he plays to them with these stories time and time again.

From Cuba he writes about a plan by Roosevelt to save Africa from the pains of European colonization in “1910: Bully!” (This novella was nominated for a Hugo and a Nebula.) He considers a Roosevelt who won the 1912 election and has a memorable conversation with his cousin Eleanor (whose husband does not impress him much) in “1916: The Bull Moose at Bay” and meets the horrors of 21st century war as he did not in real life in “1917: Over There.” Consider this line from the battlefield which Resnick must find especially prescient today: “These boys are here because of speeches and decisions that politicians have made, myself included. Left to their own devices they’d go home to be with their families. Left to ours, we’d find another cause to fight for.”

Finally, there is the devastating “1919: The Light That Blinds, the Claws That Catch,” a story of the Teddy Roosevelt who might have been if his first wife, Alice, had not died. Her death (on the same day as his mother’s) sent him into a personal tailspin that resulted in him leaving NYC for the Dakota Bad Lands where his legend was born and his mythic rise in American history began. We think men like Roosevelt would have always achieved greatness regardless of specific moments in their lives but Resnick shows so effortlessly, so elegantly, how one thing might have changed everything for the man, and thus for the country. “And History weeps” he concludes at the end, “and History weeps.”

The Other Teddy Roosevelts is outstanding historical fiction with a science fiction twist. It presents multiple moving portraits of one of America’s most impressive statesmen and makes him an even more compelling character. Teens should look to Resnick’s stories as another way to enjoy history and view those who made it. Yes, yes, this is fiction but it’s fiction as Teddy Roosevelt would have lived it. The author provides plenty of facts about the former president (in both the introduction and outstanding appendix) to pique interest in further reading and his work will likely bring new fans to someone rarely studied in more than a cursory manner in modern schools. This is just great stuff, from start to finish; I can’t recommend it enough.

Finally, Jay Lake continues his exploration of a clockwork world in Escapement. As fans of his earlier book, Mainspring, already know, in Lake’s world there is a “one-hundred-mile-high Equatorial Wall that holds up the great Gears of the Earth.” The great British and Chinese empires prowl the wall, ever curious about the secrets hidden within it, but also sorely tempted to go to war against each other. In Escapement he introduces teenage Paolina, who grew up in a tiny village of storm survivors who cling to survival in a harsh society where women have little value and girls even less. Paolina is special however -- preternaturally mechanically gifted, she harkens back to Isaac Newton in her ability to see and understand how machines function. When she makes an intuitive leap and creates a handheld gear-based miracle and decides to leave her village behind to walk the Wall until she finds transport to the “wizards” of England (who she assumes will have similar mechanical knowledge), Paolina becomes the bellwether who changes everything -- potentially even the very history of her world. Clearly Lake is saying that one should never underestimate a very smart teenager.

As Paolina makes her way along the Wall, Lake unfolds two other storylines: a Scottish sailor in the Royal Navy who is sent to Africa to ensure the success of a mission to bore into the Wall and an American (colonial) librarian who is a member of secret spiritualist society who finds herself accidentally the hostage of a Chinese submariner. Clearly there are several opportunities for action in the three converging plots and Lake throws his characters into all sorts of situations, from an encounter with men made of brass, more than one trip on an airship and an automated journey that comes close to going through the center of the earth (or at least Africa). The political intrigue is hot and heavy; Paolina finds herself a pawn to more than one nationalist ideal and saving the world gets a lot more complicated when it’s hard to figure out just who the good guys are. Life back in that podunk village actually starts to look good to her; at least there everyone knew what the rules and expectations were. In the end she has to work out for herself just what she needs to do and who she needs to trust. In those respects Paolina is like any other teenager and regardless of how her earth functions, any teen reader will identify with the choices she has to make.

Escapement is a fascinating read, not only for the differences between Lake’s world and our own but most tellingly for the similarities. The clashes between England and China read as echoes of similar clashes over the past one hundred years. And the nationalistic intent behind uncovering the Wall’s secrets -- regardless of the human cost -- is straight out of every episode of empire building in human history. Lake has tapped into a commonality of human experience and transferred it to a place that will fascinate readers from the start. For teen readers in particular, Paolina is the kind of gutsy protagonist that should be celebrated in fiction. She is smart and ruthless and determined and not one damn bit plucky -- thank heavens. She’s the girl that really could change the world, because she wants to take the time to figure out how it works. Jay Lake is working magic with his clockwork creation; don’t let this most original work pass you by.

Until next month, catch me at chasingray.com and if you are looking for book recommendations and news that appeals to teenage boys be sure to check out guyslitwire.blogspot.com; a new site I’m proud of being involved in.

Cool Read: Scott Reynolds Nelson (with Mark Aronson) tackles the myth of John Henry in his nonfiction search for the truth: Ain’t Nothing But a Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. An oversized history book, this title is written from Nelson’s perspective as he tries to uncover whether or not Henry was a real man who worked for the railroad and died in a contest against a steam drill. What he discovers sheds a great deal of light on how America remembers its history and more significantly, forgets the truth about some of those who built this nation. Nelson takes readers step by step through the research process and when his evidence seems to reveal Henry was a prisoner hired out to the railroad and later buried in an unmarked grave on prison grounds, it allows him to shed some light on the many prisoners who constructed the rail lines and lost their lives for the sum of 25 cents a day – a paltry amount they never even saw.

Ain’t Nothing But a Man is an excellent example of popular history and although directed at middle grade readers, I highly recommend it for teens up to and through high school. With its period photographs and engaging first person story, it truly reads as a detective novel and will be extremely appealing to anyone with the slightest curiosity in the past. Older readers who are piqued by the slight taste of the John Henry story presented here can move on to Nelson’s adult nonfiction title on the subject, Steel Drivin’ Man. Regardless of where their further reading takes them however, they will be much richer for having learned how complicated American history can be, and how the solid work of a historian can reveal so much we do not know, even about an American legend like this one who has been widely celebrated through song and story for more than a century.