NOTE: I’d like to thank Penguin Canada for giving the ARC of The Inventor’s Secret to Nafiza … and to Nafiza for giving me the chance to review it!
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. – [X]
We’d talked about this cover before, and I had really wanted to read this one, and now that I have … I am not sure I enjoyed it as much as I’d wanted to. You don’t understand. I was all set to love this. This is a YA book that did the cover perfectly. There are no skinny white girls on the cover and no airbrushed torso shot of a woman in a corset- even though they would actually be referencing parts of the plot! And both the summary and the tagline make sure that we know what this is all about- a revolution, a chance at overthrowing an imperial power, a shot at freedom, at personhood. The premise is so compelling too: “What if the British won the Revolutionary War?” To top it all off, it’s steampunk! This instalment should have been the start of a new obsession for me. In fact, I was hoping it would be.
However … well, you can see where I’m going with this. It just wasn’t all that I had wanted it to be. Which is fine. I don’t by any means hate it or find it deplorable. It was just not as powerful a book as it should have been, especially given that a. it is the first book in a series and b. have I mentioned that it’s a steampunk rewrite of history?! It should have been i n t e n s e. I should have put the book down only because I couldn’t stand the tension. *sigh* I guess that’s what I should address first. The writing just didn’t work for me. I found it too lacklustre. There was no poetry to it. I guess it stayed clear of the Purple Prose Pit but then the narration fell flat. (Ha!) Of course, this does not bode well for the protagonist Charlotte Marshall since the story is presented to us in third person narrative from Charlotte’s perspective. The writing makes poor Charlotte seem rather unimaginative. Halfway through the book, I wasn’t really sure why I should invest my emotions in Charlotte.
Come to that, I am not even sure why I should care about Charlotte’s cause. I mean, I know why. I may not know American history very well, but I’m Indian and I know why it would suck to have the British Empire in charge. But you cannot expect all readers to have that history at the ready. I wanted the book to highlight (in some evocative way) what it means to be a colony, such as: how grotesque it is that people must work/farm and get taxed/starved to perpetuate a system of violent inequality, how you are basically less than a person if you are not a white Englishman, how your religion and language and cultural history is erased, how you will never be placed in a position of power because you are not (as mentioned before) a white Englishman, how you are essentially canon fodder for any war that Britain chooses to fight, and let’s not forget that even a peaceful protest may get you and your loved ones put down like animals. I am only skimming the surface here. Honestly, if remembering random bits from my high school history lessons makes me this angry (and trust me, I am), reading a novel about this insanity ought to make me flip a table.
To be fair though, there are brief mentions of slavery being abolished but indentured servitude being a thing. Same difference, really. (I suppose it’s a bigger deal because now even white people can be enslaved?) There’s also a mention of Boston being turned into one huge prison … which is creepy, but we never get any real details, nor do we get an insider’s perspective. Meg, the only black character (as far as I remember)
who probably would have been a more fitting protagonist gets a handful of lines of backstory that (I feel) glosses over issues like slavery. And we get this revelation at the end of the novel, when her personality is basically still in the shadows and she decides to split from her group of friends anyway, so again, I cannot root for her. I don’t even know her. And Charlotte, okay, I didn’t dislike her. But there are moments that felt very real and read like her personality … and then there were moments where I felt like I was reading a whole different person. Charlotte’s very first act is to save an amnesiac boy. He is scandalized by her swearing and she says:
If you’re planning on sticking around, you’ll find girls here do a lot of things they aren’t meant to do.
But then it becomes pretty clear that even within a group of kids and teens who grew up away from “civilized society”, gender norms are going strong. Charlotte gets to own a gun and wear pants and, don’t get me wrong, she can handle her own most of the time but she is constantly conditioned to be a demure, modest lady. She tries to take a hold of her own sexuality and acts of her own accord, but the romantic interest pushes her away or her brother tells her off. The romantic interest kisses her only when he wants to, and that’s pretty much it. It is possible, however, that I am judging this aspect of Charlotte too quickly. Girls are allowed (and often do) to fall into the trap of self-loathing and internalized patriarchy, but they can also rise above it. If that is what Cremer was planning, then I wish there more of Charlotte developing over the course of the novel. Something to hint at bigger developments to come.
Also, there’s a lot of speak of “love” when they should really mean “lust”. Look, I know it is often the case with YA that True Love shows up at 16 but at least in other novels the romance has an arc and is compelling! Here … not so much. If Charlotte wanted to just make out and dump the guy, I’d have been very pleased. (There’s also a half-hearted love triangle and I’m not going to bother getting into that.) The thing about the main romantic interest is that all his character development is squeezed into a couple of pages of reminiscing- he used to be jerk, but then he became nicer, and now he’s only sometimes a jerk, so that’s okay. I felt like the shiny details of everyday steampunk-y life under an imperial power took a backseat to the romance and as a result, neither the world building nor the romance felt properly developed. Unless Cremer is aiming to show us how easily a crush could be viewed as love at that age, I am not sure why there needs to be such a focus on the romance. The relationship could have developed over this book, and introduced in the next one, but it happened all too soon and without much of a foundation (of bonding over big adventures) to fall back on.
I am not sure that I will prioritize reading the next book in the series but I hope that the sequel will give us more details on the revolution, more of an arc for characters like Meg and Linnet, and I hope that Charlotte will learn to manipulate tiresome, sexist societal norms to her advantage (for the cause as well as for her love life).