Queen Victoria’s court knows Charlotte Sycamore as the mild-mannered sixteen-year-old daughter of the Her Majesty’s royal surgeon. Yet Charlotte has a penchant for inventing new gadgets, and most nights she sneaks out to sword fight with her best friends, Peter and Jillian. When the three are mauled by what look like rabid dogs, Charlotte is forced to hide both her friends and her own injury. As her symptoms worsen and people are murdered across London, she embarks in a race against time to find the antidote and ultimately save the queen’s own life. Full of action, luxe royal court, engineered beasts, and a good dose of humor, this steampunk novel is a masterful blend of science fiction, fantasy, and alternative history.
You can read an excerpt here.
Overall, my reaction to this book could best be described as mild interest. I did want to see the story through to the end, to see the dastardly plot defeated, and yet I also couldn’t help but feel all the while that I liked the idea of this book more than the book itself.
Above and beyond all else, I think this story was hamstrung by its decided lack of character. Charlotte, our heroine, is essentially colorless. Oh, sure, she’s beautiful (so beautiful all the boys are swooning over her, in fact), smart (she’s memorized ALL her father’s medical texts, creates steampunk gadgetry in her spare time, AND regularly beats the Queen herself at Chinese checkers) and of course, brave, true, just, loyal…You get the idea. The girl is a walking archetype hodgepodge, a Heroine with a capitol H, but she has no personality, originality, or defining qualities. Instead she’s just a mash-up of broad generalities coupled with overwhelming goodness – Charlotte is never wrong, petty, jealous, or rude; she never makes mistakes or misjudgments. And even when she has a near brush with personal development – like when she first discovers the reality of life for the poor who live outside the castle walls – rather than actually shed her naivete or grapple with the painful truth, instead she shifts effortlessly into a saint-life mission to help the Deserving Poor. And likewise, while I sympathized with her frustrations with the restrictions on females in Victorian society, I also couldn’t help but notice how effortlessly she seemed able to circumvent them, such that it was more an inconvenience for her that anything else. And worse, when it came to Charlotte’s actions, bravery and derring-do, never once could I get a sense of true force of will, drive foresight, struggle or sacrifice,behind her actions – instead, everything was far, far too plot-derived. And so we end up with a story that makes a point of how smart its heroine is, while all the while never truly exercising her intelligence, save for plot convenience. And all in all, it just made Charlotte feel unreal.
And I hate to beat a dead horse, but I have to say it – even worse, Charlotte is by far the most developed character of the entire book. Her Dad is the classic blind fool when it comes to his daughter, her friends are all kind, loyal and true, with very little variation, and the two boys who are besotted with her are entirely interchangeable. And of course, the villains are dastardly, the rich snobby, the poor worthy, etc, etc. Sigh.
But still, all that’s not to say this book is utterly worthless, because it’s not. There’s plenty of dashing about and derring-do, with sneaking, spying and rescuing, and the steampunk elements are fun, if a bit extraneous. There is just something about a story of a Victorian rebel who sneaks out to practice swordplay and rob the rich to save the poor that I very much am inclined like – but sadly, this book just could not entirely manifest that story, and instead got a bit lost along the way.
Which brings us to the mystery at the heart of this story – which I have to say is a very, very faint plot, almost an afterthought really. Honestly, Charlotte doesn’t sleuth so much as fall onto clues, and for all her brains, she doesn’t figure out much at all (the solution to the rabies problem was particularly egregious in terms of plot convenience). In fact, overall the pacing of this story is a rather measured plod – it’s all a bit ponderous, and far too often Charlotte is left standing in the middle of the goings on, just waiting to serve up her conveniently vast expertise at the plot’s earliest convenience. And while I did like how the story touched on the vast class divides of the time, it still glossed over anything remotely like real-world consequences. Make no mistake, this is indeed a surface-level affair, a feel-good adventure where good triumphs over evil and the heroes save the day – but there is something to be said for that.
Yet in the end, I have to say I just was not satisfied with this story. I expected more from the premise, from the plot, and from Charlotte herself than I found in these pages – this book is a mildly entertaining adventure, but it’s also overall a forgettable affair, and to me, that was a shame. But now I find I appreciate Y.S. Lee’s The Agency series all the more…
Byrt Grade: B
As Levar Burton used to say – you don’t have to take my word for it…
Kate Maddison, a pen name for historical romance author Katherine Haupt, has crafted a unique and charming young adult adventure story…The storyline, while slow at times, did give a fun twist to traditional Victorian London.
Detailed descriptions set cinematic scenes and reflect careful research of the times and place. All of the story threads – romance, cloud covers of rabid bats, a plot to kill the queen – are as skillfully drawn together as a surgeon’s stitches.
So it’s a fine story qua story, nicely paced and quite gripping. The alternate, steampunk Victorian setting was different enough to have zest, without being so different as to overwhelm the story…The mystery, however, ends up solving itself – there isn’t much actual detection being done by the characters.