Wednesday night, I finished my first book for this year - Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swendson. This was a book my daughter recommended to me. She really liked it. Me....not so much. It was all right, and at the end, the story picked up and was satisfying, but it certainly didn't catch me up and make me live in that fictional world. As I was doing my Goodreads rating and my Amazon review, it occurred to me that I may have become too picky in my evaluation of reading materials.
A quick synopsis of the plot - this is alternative history, and the premise is that the first American revolution failed, leaving the colonies under British rule. One twist is that there is a ruling class that has magical abilities. A group of non-magical "rebel mechanics" is using their brains to invent machines that can do the things the "magisters" use magic to do. The hope is the machines will make a second, successful revolution possible. Verity Newton finds herself straddling the two worlds; she works as a governess in a magical household, but she is recruited by the rebels as a spy.
The premise for the story is pretty decent (although I could do without the "magic" bit - why does everyone these days use magic as a plot element. Just makes things SOOOOO convenient - need something to happen? Oh, they have MAGIC!). I liked the characters all right, though I wasn't really enamored of anyone in the story; Verity's boss, Lord Henry, is the closest I came to being truly interested in a character. He's living a double life, and although we could figure that out really early in the story, it's satisfying enough when the big reveal comes as to why he's doing it.
So it's not necessarily the story being poorly-conceived that bugs me about this book. The thing that bothered me most about was that it seemed to me the author was punching all the buttons to make the book "popular" with its young adult audience. Let's see...we need a girl who's sort of an outcast....how about a smart, bookish girl whose father doesn't really want her around? Gotta have some kind of paranormal element - ooooh, there's the magic! Check. Steampunk is really popular right now, and the rebels build machines, soooooooo--let's make sure everyone realizes this is a steampunk story by stopping the story momentarily to describe the rebels' clothing as eclectic (one of the key elements of steampunk culture). Let's see....we need a love triangle.....Hey, we'll make Verity be torn between the two social classes. We'll have Alec, the hot young rebel who is a brilliant mechanic and who is instantly attracted to Verity, and we'll have Lord Henry (of course), since he's this complex, mysterious character with an important secret. But of course, he's a "forbidden" love because he's her employer and her social superior.....Ooooooh, even better!! Betrayal by friends? Check. Girl needs a mysterious secret of her own that threatens her position in society....hmmmm......let's make Verity a half-breed--half magic, half non-magic. Girl saves the day? Check. Mean girl who puts down the main character every chance she gets? Check.
Even as I'm writing this, I feel that I'm being a little harsh. The book wasn't that bad, just sort of formulaic, and what's wrong with giving your audience what they want? I guess the thing that bothers me is the literary equivalent of worrying that my daughter is drinking too much sugary root beer and eating too much fast-food pizza. She's a voracious reader, but I have a hunch most of what she is reading is similar to Rebel Mechanics (especially since she thought this was so good she should recommend it to me). I can't at all get her to read young adult novels (like the ones by Ann Turnbull) that are substantive and involving and make you care about the characters and that don't rely on things like magic to build the plot.
Bleah! What a nagging old woman I sound like! "You young people are going to rot your (brain/teeth) if you don't stop (reading/drinking) all that (formula fiction/root beer)!"
But then.....I pick up something like the book I'm reading now (The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz), and within 16 pages, I am completely invested in this character and the problems of her life. Honestly, I nearly teared up this morning (see, that says something - I HAD to read some this morning to know what happened after I left off reading last night) when I read the part about Joan picking up and cuddling the doll her mother (who is now dead) made for her. My heart just aches for this poor young girl who is working like a slave in a household full of brothers who are not cruel (I guess), but are just uncaring.
Maybe I can convince my daughter to read it....she owes me one, right?