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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

“The Engine’s Child” by Holly Phillips (Reviewed by Liviu C. Suciu)

Official Holly Phillips Website
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INTRODUCTION: After reading a negative online review of Holly Phillips’The Engine’s Child” in which the reviewer expected a cookie cutter epic fantasy and instead got a new weird fantasy, I was intrigued. And after checking out an excerpt, I immediately bought the book which turned out to be a wonderful novel, reminding me a lot of Felix Gilman’s superb debut, “Thunderer”—similarities include the setting, plot and themes. So chances are, if you enjoyed “Thunderer” then you will love Holly Phillips’The Engine’s Child”…

SETTING: After escaping from a destroyed/decaying world as the current orthodoxy sees it—or being expelled from paradise for its sins as those out of favor believe—humanity lives on an island called Rasnan in the middle of a seemingly endless ocean. As expected with such a situation, the biggest issue that the people of Rasnan have to deal with is the threat of overpopulation.

On the island there is one city, Shadras, and the countryside, Hadaras, which are organized in a feudal style, with very strict rules about marriage, sex, and children enforced by traditionalist celibate priests. However, the rich and powerful, led by the Shaudah—hereditary ruling prince/king—need their comforts, so they are allowed a limited use of technology which is mostly electricity. This is controlled by the Vashmarna.

The current Lady Vashmarna, a vowed celibate due to a traumatic youth experience, is both a great believer in the Rasnan and its mores/religion, as well as in the possibility of technology making life easier and more fulfilling for everyone. So she tries hard to improve things, despite being frustrated at all turns by the conservative Shaudah.

The biggest traditional house in Shadras is the Ghar, whose long widowed leader is ironically a secret believer in the superiority of the original “Earth” to the current world—a belief which is as heretical to the Shaudah as extending electricity to the countryside. His son meanwhile, took celibate vows as a priest/scholar to lead the Scholarium.

After the construction of the towers which took decades, many uprooted peasants were forced to make a hardscrabble living in the Tidal area outside of the Shadras proper, living and dying at the ocean's whim in makeshift tenements. As a result, some of these people started worshipping the “living ocean/outside world” (Mundab) and tried to draw on its magical powers as conjectured by a heretical scholar killed over twenty years ago in the Lamplighter riots.

These Mundabi want to expand humanity's range on Rasnan so are natural allies of the Vashmarna, while the Ghar are looking for a return to humanity’s original world and so are connected with the banned Society of Doors that tries to opens an intra-dimensional connection to “Earth”, thus bringing back the pure and deserving to the paradise they imagine...

In this volatile situation where overpopulation and resource exhaustion threaten despite draconian punishments for unauthorized sex and childbearing, a young Tidal girl named Moth—an apprentice priest/scholar with a secret sponsor and an even more secret parentage—tries to balance both her great Mundabi magical power and her multiple loyalties to her Tidal friends, mentors, allies, her secret sponsor, and most of all to her “very” illicit lover Aramis, a scholar and engineer of the Vashmarna demesne who is associated by family to the Ghar and the Society of Doors.

FORMAT/INFO:The Engine's Child” stands at 386 pages divided over three parts (Shadras, Ranan, Mundab) and forty-seven titled chapters named after the location of the story’s action with The Tidal, The Bastion and The Bay the most common. There is also a spoiler free Glossary at the end of the novel, explaining words like shadras, rasnan, shaudah, andas, etc., and I recommend consulting it until you get into the flow of the novel. The narration is in the third-person present tense, and mostly follows the point-of-view of our heroine Moth, although Lady Vashmarna and Aramis get significant face time as well. The ending is excellent, tying up the novel’s main threads, though also allows ample scope for a sequel which I would dearly love to read.

November 25, 2008 marks the North American Trade Paperback publication of “The Engine’s Child” via
Del Rey. The cover was designed by David Stevenson with artwork provided by David Ho.

PLOT HINTS AND ANALYSIS: From the novel’s very beginning which opens with an illicit meeting between Moth and Aramis, I was intrigued by “The Engine's Child”. Admittedly, the names and titles were a bit strange at first, but the glossary helped and soon I was so engrossed in the book that I stayed up late to finish it…

After their ‘meeting’, Moth continues following the strange manifestation, only to realize that it is not the usual Mundabi occurrence, but something potentially more sinister. Soon after, Moth is continuing her vital work on the “Engine” that is supposed to be a culmination of “Mundabi” magic. Unfortunately, because of rumors that she inadvertently started, this work draws the unwelcome attention of the Tidal Shadow Gods” cult that has plans to wreak havoc on the unsuspecting Shadras population. From here, Moth balances on a very tightrope path which of course breaks—ironically due to Aramis doing his duty and having no clue about Moth's involvement—and all kinds of things start happening…

Character-wise, Moth develops very well during the novel and I found her extremely well-drawn with a convincing and complex personality. Not a purely ‘good’ heroine by any stretch of the imagination, Moth is much more nuanced as are her relationships with the people in her life.

I also found Lady Vashmarna with her contradictions—a devout believer in both tradition & technology—and Aramis with his inner conflicts between divided loyalties and forbidden love to be very interesting, while the Shaudah was well drawn as a conservative, weak and indecisive leader. Only the main villains—Ghar senior and Ghar junior—are more one-dimensional, though at least Ghar senior is better developed and we get to see an inkling of why he believes in both tradition as well as the heresy that “Earth” is paradise and Rasnan a fallen world…

Overall, “The Engine’s Child” is an absolute page-tuner featuring a wonderful writing style, imaginative setting and strong characters. Just don’t expect a by the numbers epic fantasy. Highly, highly recommended, “The Engine’s Child” has made me a new fan of Holly Phillips


Anonymous said...

Thank you for this review. On its strength I went out and bought this book.

Liviu said...

I hope you like the book :)

I have not heard of it and vaguely of Ms. Phillips until about two, three weeks ago when I read that review mentioned above - negative but interesting.

I checked out an excerpt and immediately bought the book and read it and reread it once, as well as going out to buy the other two Holly Phillips books, the ss collection In the Palace of Repose of which I read about 1/3 so far and Burning Girl which I plan to read sooner rather than later.

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