I really loved fellow blogger Jenny Davidson’s young adult novel The Explosionist; it was a good story with an appealing heroine and an interesting concept — what would the world be like if Napoleon had won the Battle of Waterloo? It’s an alternative history novel where the political configurations are nothing like what we know today — much of Europe is one entity that has taken over England, and Scotland, where the novel is set, is allied with various other northern European countries to form the New Hanseatic League. These two groups are perilously close to war.
The novel is set in the 1930s and tells the story of Sophie, a teenager in Edinburgh who lives with her great-aunt and has a fairly normal life attending school and spending time with friends. But her great-aunt has some peculiarities — she is politically well-connected and influential, for one thing, and she also has a strong interest in mediums and the spirit world and holds séances at her house. In this alternate universe, though, this kind of spiritualist interest is more wide-spread than it is in ours, so the great-aunt’s involvement in it is only mildly unusual and not alarmingly strange.
It does become alarming, however, when Sophie attends a séance conducted by a woman who delivers a frightening prophecy and then ends up dead just a little while afterwards. Sophie and her friend Mikael investigate the death and find themselves in a much more complicated situation than they ever expected — they run into trouble with the law, investigate suspicious politicians, communicate with the spirit world, and much more.
I loved the novel for a bunch of reasons; one of the main ones was Sophie herself, who is smart and thoughtful, and although she does doubt herself at times, which is what one would expect in a 15-year old who has to deal with some strange situations, she trusts her insights and her intelligence. She knows that boys and girls, men and women, are equally capable and smart, and she makes sure she holds her own in her adventures with Mikael. She believes just as strongly that children are basically young versions of adults and are capable of much more than adults usually give them credit for. Her actions in the novel prove her point.
All the historical and cultural differences between the novel’s world and our own are a lot of fun to discover as well. Many famous names appear in the novel, but they are famous for different reasons than they are in our world — Sigmund Freud, for example, has a talk show on the radio and blathers on about the Daedalus complex. Albert Einstein writes poetry and James Joyce is famous for his operas.
And, of course, it’s a good story, too, with a plot that moves along at a steady, satisfying pace. One of the most chilling parts of the plot has to do with an organization called IRYLNS, the Institute for the Recruitment of Young Ladies for National Security. The acronym is pronounced “irons,” and its activities, which I won’t describe here, are horrifying. Sophie learns more about it than she ever wanted to know.
Like all good young adult novels, this one is excellent reading for people of all ages. If you’re interested, you’ll find an author’s blog here.