Let’s get one thing out of the way quickly – the cover for this (and the sequel The Tinker King) is sexy as hell. Like, in my line of work, I get excited (and a bit jealous) about great book covers but I love these.
There, now I can be less shallow and suggest you might also like this book for something other than moody steampunk and typeface-porn. Because you probably will.
I’ll try and race through the set-up: we’re in a Victoriana London that’s religious system now runs on science (Saint Tesla, etc.) and Vespa Nyx works in a museum of ‘Unnaturals’ – mythic, magic beasts in suspended animation for the delight of the public. Meanwhile, outside the city, there’s the Tinkers, who live in harmony with the unnaturals, on the edge of the toxic creeping Waste, and are being picked off by the city-dwellers, dragged off to work in factories. Which is what happens to the family of thirteen-year-old Syrus. And, as we might expect, Vespa and Syrus’ paths are due to cross…
However – refreshingly- it’s not just a pedestrian steampunk outing. In fact, it takes only the fine bones of the genre, and fleshes it out with the sort of at-one-with-the-elementals mysticism and cultural diversity that it put me in mind less of airships and clockwork than series like Lian Hearn’s Tales of the Otori. Also, happily, it takes a turning about halfway through that satisfyingly derails your expectations, and builds to a showdown at the end that for once doesn’t feel either pat or anticlimactic (and I have to say, that’s rare to find in adventure fiction.)
The Unnaturalists isn’t a perfect novel in one of those ways which is really more a compliment than an actual complaint. Chiefly, I wish it was a good half a book longer, because the first third is taken up in such a kaleidoscopic medley of wonderful invention (the Tinkers! The sylphids! The manticore! The factories! The Raven Guard! The Architects! The aristocracy!) that it’s hard to take a chance to fully appreciate the really wonderful world-building that’s going on. I’d happily read the padded version of this novel where I can really explore everything that’s happening, because Trent has really gone all out on imagining a firecracker of a world. Whilst I appreciated the imagination, it was hard to actually settle to the story, and it’s a third of the pagecount before the story settles into itself. (I’m always loathe to pick up on this sort of thing though – the book classifies itself as YA on the reverse of the cover, and I know from other writers that publishers central tenet for this genre is ‘faster! faster! faster!’)
And, of course, there’s a romance, but thankfully not one that absorbs every waking moment of the female protagonists mind. She might have a touch too many ‘oh his beautiful eyes’ moments, but she’s also canny and independent to offset it and – in a great touch – there’s a nice little plot twist in the relationship that keeps it fresh and, I admit, I didn’t see coming.
Thankfully, there’s a sequel – The Tinker King – which I will be grabbing hold of sharpish. Setup out of the way, it should be great to see the characters go out an explore the extraordinary world that Tiffany Trent has created. It’s a great adventure, it’s very well-written (not a clunking sentence to be seen anywhere) and it’s got a bucket-load more imagination than a good deal of the books on your shelf, I promise you.