Hackney combines the broad sweeps and high peril of the action mystery with the fine detail of character-driven narratives. Both rollicking tale of a plucky youth and sweeping portrayal of a complex society, this novel has much to appeal to readers of all ages and preferences.
Harriet Howland spends her days working in her mother’s laundry and her nights sneaking out to listen to the tales of derring-do told by Sibelius the sky monkey. But when pirates attack her home in search of both her and a mysterious brass device, she is thrust into an adventure more dramatic than the most unfeasible of Sibelius’ tales. Chased by both criminal factions and the police, each step closer to the truth of her past puts her two steps closer to disaster.
Hackney crafts a grimy, yet not depressing, world, filled with cheeky dodgers, melodramatic villains, and steam-gauge-clad machinery. Skilfully balancing description of technology and science with the casual perspective of a narrator used to the sights of their own society, he shows the reader a vast steampunk dystopia without descending into tedious exposition or specification.
Where this balancing act between the dark and light, familiarity and wonder, might fail is in the names of places and things: Harriet’s home town is called Lundoon; and several other names are almost those of the real world. With no explanation for why the names are this way, this neither one nor the other labelling can feel like cleverness for the sake of it.
However, this is the only bump in an otherwise engaging alternate reality, filled with the darkly comical, lightly threatening, and space squid.
Shifting between grimy back streets, labyrinthine swamps, and the voids between worlds, the plot races from danger to danger, casting doubt on ever more of Harriet’s comfortable assumptions.
Harriet is a well-written protagonist. Head filled with Sibelius’ tall tales and lacking life experience, her reaction to the sudden collapse of her life is a plausible mix of confidence and naïvety. It would be easy to characterise her as a ‘strong female lead’, but that would miss the fact that – while her sex creates obstacles – she is not defined by it.
The supporting cast are a similar mix of familiar stock figure and nuanced personality, both providing the sense that they have complete lives outside Harriet’s story, and making them immediately accessible without sacrificing the possibility that they are not what they seem.
Overall, I enjoyed this book greatly. I recommend it to readers looking for fast-paced steampunk adventure that is light without lacking depth.
I received a free copy from the author in exchange for a fair review.