Brightstorm (2020) introduces the two resourceful twins Arthur and Maudie, son and daughter of the famed explorer Ernest Brightstorm. The story opens grimly, with news that their father was lost on his latest expedition, an attempt to reach South Polaris by airship. Worse, his competitor, Eudora Vane, returned with the accusation that Brightstorm had stolen her ship’s fuel in an attempt to reach Polaris first, before failing and being killed, along with this entire crew, by vicious beasts. The news not only destroys the family name, but turns the twins into orphans (their mother died when they were born) who are quickly sold off into servitude.
But when the youthful Harriet Culpepper mounts another expedition to race Vane back to South Polaris, they and their father’s “sapient” hawk Parthena — sole survivor of their father’s journey — join her in an attempt to clear the family name and learn the truth of their father’s disappearance, hoping beyond hope he still lives in the snowy wasteland.
As is typical of a Middle Grade story, we don’t spend a lot of time in Brightstorm on detailed description, introspection, or in-depth characterization. Maudie is bright and good with machines (she hopes to study engineering) and devices; Arty is driven, more impetuous, and a good problem-solver. He’s also missing an arm (the stories of how he lost it vary as the book goes on) and wears an iron one devised by his sister. These basic traits drive their actions and the storyline. Similar one or two sentence descriptions suffice for the other characters as well. Vashti Hardy does complicate the relationship between Arty and Maudie late in the book, but in relatively cursory fashion. Meanwhile, the villain Eudora Vane is pretty stock in her sinister machinations, and as is often the case in these sort of stories, particularly for younger readers, safely ineffective.
Plot moves apace, particularly the opening section where the twins are orphaned, robbed of their home and goods, and sold off in a handful of pages. This segment stuck out as more than a little implausible to me, mostly because there’s little sense of a wider world where these things happen regularly, and so, for example, a housekeeper who informs them of their father’s death with a “get used to it” sticks out as a bit hard to believe. But once we’re past the opening in the city and onto the journey itself the suspension of disbelief becomes much easier as we’re introduced to a house that morphs into something else, airships powered by pitch (most of them) or water (Harriet’s unique design), sabotage attempts, a bandit attack, large “thoughtwolves” who communicate via telepathy, and a difficult journey through a land of ice and snow and seemingly impassable mountains.
I did wish Hardy had slowed down a bit to spend more time in several scenes or on a bit more characterization. Many of the scenes feel more like vignettes than fully realized events, things come a bit easily to the characters, and I wish we had felt the difficulty of the snowy journey through the wasteland more than we did. There are flashes of more depth. I did like that Hardy gives us a character with a disability and shows how not only Arty but those around him adapt to it (though I confess I wondered about his iron arm in the frozen cold). There are also brief references to larger concepts such as sustainability, preservation of nature, and classism, though again they could have been explored a bit more fully.
Brightstorm resolves all its major issues and questions by the end, but clearly points as well to a sequel via a new expedition to a different part of the world. While a bit slight, it’s a solidly engaging opening to a potential new series for younger readers.