by Jenny Davidson
Reading level: YA
Book type: prose novel
The Explosionist is the story of a 15-year-old girl growing up in an alternate version of 1930s Edinburgh. There, the legacy of Napoleon's victory a century earlier at Waterloo is a standoff between a totalitarian Federation of European States and a group of independent northern countries called the New Hanseatic League. This world is preoccupied with technology (everything from electric cookers to high explosives) but also with spiritualism, a movement our world largely abandoned in the early 20th Century; Sigmund Freud is a radio talk-show crank, cars run on hydrogen and the most prominent scientists experiment with new ways of contacting the dead.
(synopsis from Goodreads)
I'm not quite sure how to go about reviewing this book. It was one of the worst books I've ever read, with one of the most awful heroines I've ever had the displeasure of encountering. I'm completely baffled by the positive reviews on Amazon.com, and I have no idea how or why it was picked up by a major publisher (Harper Collins).
Note: This review does contain spoilers. It was impossible to talk about what I didn't like without including them.
Basically, The Explosionist takes place in an alternate timeline in Scotland in 1938. The Battle of Waterloo had the opposite outcome, England was absorbed into mainland Europe, and Scotland became an isolated country with a successful munitions industry. Sophie Hunter, an orphan who lives with her Spiritualist great aunt in Edinburgh, must solve a mystery about the murder of a medium... before the government's IRYLNS program can get its hands on her and turn her into a man-serving drone.
My problems with this book were many. First, there were the characters. I could not identify with any of them. As the book went on, I kept shaking my head, wondering if the author had even been around other people, since she didn't seem to know how people were supposed to act. I think the author thought that 1938 was supposed to be a very sexist time for women. But the way she had her characters act often made no sense. There was a scene where Sophie was on the phone with her friend, Mikael, and Mikael made a comment about wanting to protect her from seeing something grisly because she was a girl. After Sophie hung up the phone, she sank to the floor and cried. Then the next time she saw Mikael, she apologized to him! I still can't figure out what she was apologizing for. Being a girl? I don't know.
Sophie was not the most consistent character. She was also rather dumb. She suffers from SNS to a horrible degree. But the author also withheld information from the reader... and that angered me far more. In the beginning of the book, Sophie has a crush on her chemistry teacher. Other than the fact that he has fair hair, we're not really told what he looks like. Later in the book, Sophie realizes that it's not her chemistry teacher she's in love with, but Mikael... who happens to be the teacher's younger brother. They apparently look so much alike that Sophie can transfer her affections from one to the other; but we're never told what Mikael looks like, so we don't have the opportunity to put the pieces together for ourselves. I felt cheated at that point, as if the author was trying to be mysterious and clever. But I guess if Mikael had been described, the reader might've been able to figure out the connection, and Sophie would have looked even dumber for not seeing it sooner. Sophie was also, ultimately, selfish. Sacrificing oneself is a lot to ask of a 15-year-old girl, but it's what I would have expected here. After all that Sophie went through to get evidence of what was going on at IRYLNS, the fact that she decided not to tell anyone (and basically allow her friends to be lobotomized to serve men) made no sense. If you find evidence of a whole generation of girls being brain damaged, do you really keep it a secret because one of them told you to? Really?
That wasn't the worst of it, though. Sophie was just not written as a 15-year-old girl. At one point in the story, Sophie thought that someone was speaking to her as if she was "a mentally deficient ten-year-old". My first thought when I read that line was, "If you don't want to be treated like a mentally deficient ten-year-old, then stop acting like one!" All of Sophie's friends, as well, acted like little children, basically throwing hissy fits when something didn't go their way. Jean, in particular, came off as terribly immature. I found it difficult to believe that these girls were old enough to drive, a year away from finishing their schooling, and almost old enough to marry.
As for the story itself, I did like the alternate timeline idea. I thought it was great that Scotland powered its cars with fuel cells (plausible, since they didn't have much access to oil and gas and would have had to, out of sheer necessity, come up with an alternate energy source). The fact that Spiritualism was a large part of this society was interesting, too. But the story, at times, got bogged down with way too many facts and implausibilities. The information dump near the end about the manufacture of nitroglycerin and dynamite read like the perseverating ramblings of someone obsessed with explosives. It's nice to have some details, but it is possible to go overboard.
I was also not impressed with the writing. It started out okay (aside from way too much telling and not enough showing) but, gradually, run-on sentences started to creep in. I think I have a fairly decent vocabulary, but I was constantly having to write down words to look up later (too much thesaurus use, perhaps?). The author also seemed to like the word "scruple", using it a number of times (both as a noun and as a verb). And some of the writing was just plain odd. I remember this simile clearly, because it was obviously mixed-up:
Mikael let himself be dragged into the storefront, where the smell of hot fat enveloped them like a cloak of invisibility.
Unless we're talking about a case of synesthesia, I don't see how a smell can be compared with invisibility.
Eventually, this dragged-out dystopian murder mystery ended, but with little resolution. It took more than 450 pages to "solve" the mystery, even though the actual whodunnit was solved about halfway through. This book is obviously leading to a sequel (which I have no intention of reading).
The only really good thing that I can say about this book is that the cover is lovely (even though the girl looks nothing like Sophie), and that I got it at a huge discount. Still, knowing what I know now, I wouldn't pay $1.67 to read it. It was that bad.
Overall: 1.2 out of 5