In 2010, I put Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker on my list of favorite books of the year. In 2012, I put her The Broken Lands on my list of favorite books of the year. Well, another two years have passed, Milford is out with another story, and, well, you know the rest . . .
Though maybe not all the rest, as there’s a bit of a twist to her newest work, Bluecrowne. Like her last work, The Kairos Mechanism, this brief novel (220 pages) is part of her Arcana Project, a Kickstarter project to self-publish smaller stories that weave in and out of her BONESHAKER world, acting as both a sort of connecting tissue binding together the larger, traditionally published novels and as a tide-you-over gift to those of us impatiently waiting for those larger works. Conceptually, it’s a great story-telling method, a win-win for both author (who keeps her name out there and stays in contact with her fans) and reader (who doesn’t have to wait for the slow pace of traditional publishing or be bound by their more profit-focused constraints). But lots of things that are great conceptually fall flat in the execution (sudden flashback to me with singed eyebrows). What makes this a great project isn’t the concept; it’s the finished product. Few authors write with the lyrical grace, emotional heft, and steeped-in-folklore atmosphere that Milford does, and Bluecrowne is just more of the same.
The novel is set in the early 1800’s in the harbor town of Nagspeake. Twelve-year-old Lucy Bluecrowne has spent almost all her young life aboard her father’s privateering ship, but now her father has decided it’s time to set her ashore with her step-mother Xiaoming and her seven-year-old half-brother Liao, a fireworks prodigy. Taking Lucy off the sea is like throwing a dolphin into the desert, but for the sake of her father, she plans on trying her best to adapt to this new life on the unmoving ground.
Meanwhile, two other newcomers, Trigemine and Blister, arrive on a mission from their intimidatingly powerful boss Morvengarde, who seeks a formidable weapon known as The Albatross and a “conflagrationeer” — a person so well versed in pyrotechnics that their work seems akin to magic. Even worse, Morvengarde is acting in the service of Jack Hellcoal, a man so feared the Devil himself turned him away from hell, telling him to make his own hell on Earth. Which is just what Jack plans to do. Considering Liao’s abilities, one can see the conflict on the horizon.
Like her previous novels, Bluecrowne starts off quietly, as we explore Lucy’s deep sorrow over being put ashore and her new attempts to bond with her younger sibling. The story unfolds slowly at first, gradually building a creeping sense of discomfort and then danger. But then the pace begins to quicken, first in in geometric and then exponential progression, until it closes in a frenzy of events, heart-breaking choices, and bittersweet resolutions. The pace is perfect, the momentum building forcefully behind the reader, sweeping them along as the stakes are raised ever higher.
Characterization is another strong suit. It would have been easy, and oh-so-typical, to have had Lucy be the same-old same-old rebelliously spunky daughter who refuses to go quietly when she is told to do something she doesn’t want to (really, how many times have we seen that character?). Instead, we get a much more moving picture of a young girl who accepts what she’s being asked to do and accepts as well the emotional and mental toll it will exact on her because to do so is not only a mature and responsible act, but the way to save those she loves from feeling pain. The moments, for instance, when she hides her bitter disappointment so as not to ruin the new home for Liao are both extremely poignant and also reveal a strength of character at least as strong, if not stronger, than that which would be required to sneak out at night and run away to live the life she wants. She’s a marvel of a character and one can only hope we haven’t seen the last of her.
Working with such a shorter space, almost half the length of her other works, Milford doesn’t have the time or pages to give her smaller characters the usual depth and richness. But if they are less fully fleshed out, they are no less vividly portrayed, especially Trigemine, Liao’s mother (at the very end), and the Ironmonger, a minor character who has very few pages but who comes fully alive during what time he has. Even someone like her father’s ship’s carpenter, who has a mere handful of lines, feels like a unique individual, one about whom you feel that you know all that you need to know. It’s a wonderfully economical ability to create character.
As always, Milford’s prose is sharply efficient and effective — spare when it needs to be, lyrically poetic when it needs to be, as in her descriptions of the fireworks or in Lucy’s thoughts on the sea and a small boat she hopes to make her own. It’s an often beautifully written book, with multiple lines you’ll want to linger over for their poetic nature or evocative imagery.
Beyond the wonderful prose, compelling storyline, and captivating main character, what drives this book at its heart is the heart, for this is really a story about love. The love of a father for his daughter, a mother for her son, a child for her/his parent, a sister for her brother, and as well the love of a young girl for the ever-changing face of the sea.
For those who have read Milford’s other novels, you’ll find some familiar faces in here. But if you haven’t read anything else by her, don’t be discouraged; Bluecrowne stands firmly and easily on its own. You may not get the full rich impact of the tale, but neither will you feel like you’re missing something. Though if after reading Bluecrowne you don’t go out and purchase The Boneshaker, The Broken Lands, and The Kairos Mechanism, you will be — the chance to immerse yourself in one of the most engaging and moving fictional worlds out there. Highly recommended — every single one of them.