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.
9 responses to “The Explosionist”
I’m always on the look out for good new teen fiction for our teen readers group (and of course for myself, there is some excellent stuff out there), so thanks for this. I’m off to investigate further.
This does sound good! I hardly ever read YA fiction but some of it is extraordinary. I read Meg Rosoff’s How I Live Now a couple of years ago but it’s remained more vivid in my memory than a lot of other good adult fiction. I also love the ‘alternative history’ line in novels. I’m looking forward to reading Owen Sheers’ Resistance, which lots of bloggers have recommended and which tells the story of a Nazi invasion of England. But I’ll look out for this book too now!
This sounds like fun. I find it especially amusing that Freud has a radio talk show. It is also nice to hear about a good teen book with a strong and smart girl who isn’t looking to fall in love or trying to fit in at school.
I am glad you liked it!
A lot of YA lit is surprisingly sophisticated and I never write it off just because it’s marketed for teens. I think alternative histories are interesting and this one all the more so as it sounds like it is pretty convincing. It always amazes me how authors can imagine these scenarios! I’ll have to look for this one as well.
Ann — I’d really love to hear what you think of the book — you know so much about the genre!
Litlove — I don’t read much young adult fiction either, but it’s a shame, because some of it is so good, as you say. I’m always glad when somebody gives me a reason to read in the genre — maybe I should seek it out on my own more often.
Stefanie — oh, definitely I think you’d like Sophie — she’s a very appealing main character.
Jenny — I liked it very much, and in fact I’m planning on sending a copy as a gift to a friend of mine, who I’m sure will like it too.
Danielle — alternative histories are definitely interesting, and yes, this one is convincing and well-done. I certainly don’t have the creative power to write such a thing myself!
This sounds fabulous. I’ve started reading a bit more YA fiction this year and have found some real gems. Thanks for the review – I’m adding it to my list.
I’ve begun to read more in the YA and children’s genre lately. I find that good writing is good writing no matter who the target audience is. This one sounds really good.
Off to Goodreads, yet again, to add it to the “To-Read” shelf…