Review: A Dastardly Plot by Christopher Healy

This autumn, Christopher Healy, author of the Hero’s Guide books—which made me chuckle uncontrollably in public—released the first novel in an all-new rollicking Middle Grade series: A Perilous Journey of Danger and Mayhem: A Dastardly Plot.

It’s 1883—the Age of Invention! In the back of an unassuming New York City pickle shop, twelve-year-old Molly Pepper and her mother Cassandra Pepper create inventions that could change the world! Except the World’s Fair won’t let them participate because they’re women. However, when a crazed inventor with a robot army and a mind-melting death machine tries to take New York City hostage, only Molly, her mother, and her new friend Emmett can save the day.

This novel brims with Healy’s characteristic humor. Over-the-top villains! Over-the-top misunderstandings! Over-the-top puns! Over-the-top accents! After giving Prince Charming the comedic treatment in the Hero’s Guide series, Healy now hilariously reinterprets several famous historical personalities, including Alexander Graham Bell, Nikola Tesla, and Thomas Edison (who apparently has a particular penchant for tap dancing).

Christopher Healy, looking friendly and mischievous.

While the Hero’s Guide books thrived on group dynamics, Healy takes a more intimate approach in A Dastardly Plot, focusing on the daughter-mother relationship between Molly and Cassandra. Although there are plenty of plot twists that separate mom and daughter, it was refreshing to read a novel where the parent character gets to contribute to the adventure without being fully shuffled aside. This doesn’t take away from Molly’s agency; if anything it reinforces it. Cassandra has a brilliant intellect, but Molly is usually the one handling the daily practicalities and life challenges.

Molly’s developing friendship with Emmett also drives the story. A Chinese-American boy who works as Alexander Graham Bell’s assistant–and an unwitting courier for the most fearsome gangs of New York City–Emmett must battle inner demons (metaphorically) and outer robots (literally).

With this focus on two key character relationships, Healy’s narrative scope is perhaps more limited here than in the Hero’s Guide books; we stay with Molly, rather than jumping between characters in different places. However, this novel is more ambitious in the social issues it addresses. Healy highlights the struggles of women overshadowed by their male colleagues, and Molly befriends several characters based on real female inventors from the late 1800s, including Margaret Knight and Hertha Marks.

Emmett’s struggles as a Chinese-American also highlight issues of racism, immigration, and belonging. Emmett feels isolated in America, with the story unfolding a year after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned all Chinese laborers from entering the United States. However, he also feels disconnected from his Chinese ancestry, as he has spent his entire life in America and speaks only English.

By entwining issues of sexism and racism into the otherwise zany shenanigans of the plot, Healy keeps his characteristic charm while underscoring darker aspects of history that remain all-too-prevalent today. This blend of mad-cap historical adventure with serious social issues might prove a growing trend in Middle Grade literature—Daniel José Older’s Dactyl Hill Squad has it too. Both Healy and Older are managing a fascinating balancing act, writing books that recognize the seriousness of our cultural moment while keeping the humor, wonder, and warmth of classic children’s literature.

Healy’s new series is poised to continue in the sequel, The Treacherous Seas (expected September 2019), which promises nautical—and perhaps even ‘chilling’ Antarctic—adventure for Molly and Emmett.

Guest Review by Russell F. Hirsch