CM . . . . Volume XVII Number 38 . . . . June 3, 2011
Empire of Ruins: The Hunchback Assignments III.
Toronto, ON: HarperCollins Canada, 2011.
309 pp., hardcover, $18.99.
Disfiguewred perfson -Fiction.
Grades 7-10 / Ages 12-15.
Review by Kristin Butcher.
Mr. Socrates heard the thud as though a huge rock had slammed into the Prince Albert's outer balloon. It burst with the impact and the airship plummeted towards the ground.
“Lizzie, guide us down!” he shouted.
She grunted as she pulled a lever and tried to steer the ship.
As Mr. Socrates turned to examine the damage, he saw a figure fall through the air, a cloak flapping around him. Modo! Good Lord! It would be impossible to dive the Prince Albert fast enough to catch him.
“Was that Modo?” Octavia shrieked. “Was it?”
“Yes,” Mr. Socrates said. He couldn't bring himself to watch Modo fall any farther. He looked up. The Prometheus was smoking in the sky and going in circles. “He accomplished his goal.”
Empire of Ruins, by renowned writer Arthur Slade, is the third installment of his steam punk series, “The Hunchback Assignments.” Steam punk literature is a science fiction/fantasy genre set in the era of the steam engine, and it employs futuristic inventions for the time. Empire of Ruins fits the bill perfectly.
Set in the Victorian Era, the novel takes up the continuing adventures of the Permanent Association, a secret service organization whose agents are bent on saving the Empire from their nefarious opponent, the Clockwork Guild. This time around, the archenemies are vying for an ancient Egyptian artifact in Australia. (Apparently the Egyptians got around more than previously believed.) This artifact is referred to as the God Face and is rumoured to drive mad anyone who lays eyes on it. It isn't clear why either group wants the artifact, but one assumes it has historical value. So the race is on.
For those who have read the first two books in the series, I have no doubt that Empire of Ruins picks up right where the first two books left off, and readers will be gobbling up every page.
But for readers such as myself, who haven't read the previous books, this novel posed some problems. Though Slade alludes to incidents and situations from the other books, the information he provides isn't sufficient to give the first time reader a clear understanding of what's what and who's who. For instance—consider the age of the agents. At the outset, I thought they were all adults. Though Slade explains that Modo was an orphan rescued from a freak show by Mr. Socrates and trained to be a secret agent, it isn't until over halfway through the book that the reader learns Modo is only 16-years-old. That was quite a surprise, particularly because he behaves like an adult. And since Modo and Octavia are attracted to one another, does that mean she is also a teenager? That fact isn't revealed at all in the novel. This might seem a trivial point, but it actually made a big difference to my perceptions of the story, and I had to do a lot of rethinking. I hadn't liked the idea that all the characters were adults because this is a book for young readers, and so finding out they weren't was a welcome discovery. Nevertheless, it would have been more welcome if it had occurred at the beginning of the book.
Likewise, allusions to earlier incidents and adventures didn't clarify them. Modo's childhood and years of training are touched on, but his ability to shape-shift isn't explained; nor is why he is kept hidden from society while everyone else can come and go. References to drowning, mechanical dogs, and past run-ins with Miss Hakkandottir of the Clockwork Guild only served to make me feel I was missing something. (Perhaps it is a ploy to get me to read the other books!)
In that respect, I found the book unsatisfying—even frustrating. Though a book is part of a series, it should be able to stand alone, and I don't feel this one does.
I also had difficulty with Mr. Socrates' bigoted attitude. Certainly this was an attitude shared by many people during the Victorian Era, so Slade is rendering his character realistically, but since Mr. Socrates is one of the good guys, I wonder if young readers will think deeply enough to see this attitude as a negative thing. The final snag for me concerns the constantly changing point of view, as well as the forward and backward time jumping at the beginning of the novel. That was somewhat confusing. (Please note: the issues raised in this paragraph may reflect my own personal comfort zone and might not be a problem for others.)
Otherwise Empire of Ruins has a lot to offer—ingenious inventions, bags of adventure, a little romance, and food for thought.
For those who have been waiting for this installment of “The Hunchback Assignments,” I'm sure you won't be disappointed. For those who are new to the series, I suggest you read the others books first.
Recommended with reservations.
Kristin Butcher lives in Campbell River, BC, and writes for children and young adults.
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