The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson

Jenny Davidson has published one book for YAs — this one, practitioner which comes out July 1st. She also wrote a novel, Heredity, for adults; being a professor of Comparative Literature at Columbia University also means that she’s published a couple scholarly tomes. Her supposed blog is mostly commentary on things she finds in the news; she has a companion blog about the triathlons she’s training for. The adult novel sounds interesting; it’s described as Girl, Interrupted meets Possession. I might have to track it down.

Sophie is fifteen years old; she lives in an alternate Scotland, where Napoleon won at Waterloo. There’s a great interest in technology, but also in spiritualism — mediums, spirit photography, and the like. There’s a march towards a war, though, and the country is preparing for it. Sophie’s great-aunt, with whom she lives, is a great fan of spiritualism, and at a seance she holds, the medium has a confusing message for Sophie. Later, amidst the bombs that are going off at Sophie’s school and other places, the medium turns up dead, and there are links in various odd places. That, and what’s up with the IRLYNS corps of female assistants? They act strangely . . .

I loved this book. Ms. Davidson’s world-building was excellent, from the stoves to the preparations for mediums. There were a fair amount of in-jokes, like Sigmund Freud being a radio talk-show crank and Oscar Wilde being a doctor. While those could have gone overboard, they didn’t. I’ve read other alternate histories in which I didn’t feel enough things were different; the split between that world and our world was not very much. I thought that Ms. Davidson thought out the possible political and social ramifications fairly thoroughly, and made her Scotland different enough to be alternate, but not unrecognizable. The science is generally the same between Sophie’s world and our world, and although Ms. Davidson does explain it, it doesn’t come across as a lecture. Well, except when Sophie is listening to a lecture in school. I found it interesting, though. Things that blow up are usually a good audience-grabber.

Sophie was an excellent narrator; she certainly wasn’t wallpaper paste. I followed her teacher-crush with a certain amount of embarrassment on her behalf. Her friends at the school (it’s a boarding school; Sophie goes home on the weekends) are also great, from the smart one who pretends to be flaky and changeable to manipulate people, to the one who is hopelessly in love with her. Mikael (a friend who lives near the school) is also interesting; he and Sophie have a shifting relationship. There are so many examples of strong, dynamic women in this book, including Great-Aunt Tabitha, government officials, and schoolteachers. The majority of those ladies, however, have totally given up emotion for work or an ideal. It’ll be interesting to see how she deals with that concept in the next book.

Oh, there is a next book. It doesn’t say so, and originally I thought the ending was merely sequel bait, but something was odd about the pacing. Thinking about it for a while, I realized that this was most likely book 1 of a trilogy. It just feels, to me (and I’ve read quite a few trilogies), that the author has set up so much story that it will take her three books to be able to cover it all. The pacing doesn’t make much sense for a stand-alone novel (too much setup for too little denouement), but it’s absolutely dead-on for book 1 of 3. I probably would have enjoyed the book a smidge more if I’d’ve known that it was book 1 of a trilogy, but this was an ARC. It may be on the final cover. Overall, I’d definitely recommend it for YAs as well as adults; although it’s perhaps not quite as subtle as the adult version may be, there’s still enough for readers of many ages to chew on. 5/5 stars, and anxiously awaiting the rest of the trilogy.

(By the way, if it’s not a trilogy, just remember that I’m not trained in literary theory.)

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