Friday, December 19, 2008

Review: The Engine's Child by Holly Phillips

The Engine’s Child by Holly Phillips (US, UK, Canada) has been received with very mixed acclaim. Reactions seem to vary from love it to hate it with very little in between. In many ways, this is entirely appropriate for a novel that is all about contrasts, polar values and divisions. I find myself in odd place with neither loving, nor hating the book – appreciating the stylistic skill with which it was executed yet not feeling the connection necessary to truly enjoy a book.

Moth, a young woman in her early twenties, is training in the scholarly-priestly order that rigidly controls society under the direction of an elite few. Unlike most of those in her order, Moth’s origins are not aristocratic – she comes from the tidal slums. Through Moth and her contacts we learn of the deep political divisions and a society of the have’s and have not’s. The world is an island – a refuge of humanity that only barely escaped the sins of the past – the sins of magic and technology and Moth just may control its future.

Moth chafes in her religious role and rebels against the rigid rules. Her love affair with an engineer threatens her position as both a priest and as the key member of the secret organization seeking the freedom of the downtrodden tidal poor through blasphemous and magical means. Her actions become the lodestone of political tensions and secret organizations.

The Engine’s Child is all about the contrasts – one society seeks to save the world by looking to the past, one by looking to the future. One utilizes magic, another science and technology. One is for the rich and elite, another is a way for the poor to thrive. One is lead by a woman, another by a man. One is lead by an elder, another by a relative child. These contrasts are but a few in this world that is threatened by uncontrollable rain and impending disaster as well as its own overpopulation.

Phillips writes with poetic prose and with thematic depth. The stylistic strength of Phillips’ writing will equally attract and detract potential readers. This relatively dense style clearly demonstrates skill yet slows the pace and raised a significant barrier me forming a connection with the plot and characters and my overall enjoyment of the book.

Feelings about characterization will be largely determined by one’s like (or dislike) of Moth. At times she’s easy to relate to, at others she is completely moronic – I think an appropriate range for a relatively young, conflicted, and confused woman thrust into importance. One aspect I really enjoyed is that Moth acts – others react, and this is strangely rare for a protagonist in SFF. However, the secondary characters often steal the show – particularly Lady Vashmarna who seems the most rationally human of them all.

As The Engine’s Child defines the contrast of its world, the action takes place where these opposites come together – in the middle ground. So in a way I find it oddly comforting that my own reaction to the book is also found in this middle ground. I’m not singing its praises and calling for The Engine’s Child to win awards, nor am I proclaiming it a mess of book and waste of my time. To me the book is what it is – a story of the polarity of humanity – a skillfully stylistic novel – and a novel that failed to connect with me. Perhaps that’s reason enough for it to be read. 6.5-7/10

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