It’s 1953 in a world where the British Empire never collapsed, the first World War lasted one year, and the second never happened. England commands a global, coal-fueled empire and has hastened rapid global warming. London, like Venice, is a city of canals. Irish rebels and “London undergrounders” wage a guerilla revolution against the crown. This is the world of Dave Freer’s YA submarine adventure Cuttlefish.
Tim Barnabas is a young crewman on the coal-powered submarine Cuttlefish. Clara Calland is the daughter of an imprisoned Irish rebel and a prominent chemist. Mary, her mother, has discovered a chemical process that will shift the balance of power in the world. She and Clara are smuggled aboard the Cuttlefish, headed for America, and the chase is on.
The villain is Malcolm, Duke of Leinstar, the half-brother of the British Monarch and head of the empires Intelligence services. The Duke is a stock villain, not overly complicated, but his web of espionage adds suspense to the story.
The description of the submarine is delightful. Freer lavishes detail on the engine room with its compressors and batteries as well as the main Stirling engines. When the boat is on the surface, it uses outriggers and diaphanous gossamer sails. The first third of the book contains a suspenseful cat-and-mouse chase through the Shetland Isles. After that, it becomes a bit more of an epidsodic travelogue. The Cuttlefish faces mechanical problems, technological attacks and interpersonal attacks. The pace becomes a fast canter, and never changes, so that an abduction attempt near the end feels like the real climax of the book, rather than the Cuttlefish’s desperate run to the independent Australian republic of Westralia that happens at the end.
Tim and Clara in particular are engaging characters. Tim is brave and unsure, finding his way on the submarine. He comes from the tunnels in London, and his dark skin makes him the target of racist comments and rough treatment from some crew members. Clara has some trouble adjusting from being a “young lady” to a rebel on the run. She is smart and inventive. One of my favorite moments is when she builds a crystal set in order to track the radio signals from the spy on board. She not only helps uncover the spy but makes a discovery that comes into play later in the book. The boat’s captain and first mate are well-drawn and so is Mary Calland, Clara’s mother, although she doesn’t deviate much from being a typical bossy mom. The Duke is the biggest disappointment in this area. He’s smart and apparently competent, but stereotypically arrogant and cold. The most interesting thing about him is his relationship to his two royal half-brothers, Ernst and Albert.