The Broken Lands by Kate Milford
Kate Milford’s The Boneshaker was one of my favorite books when it came out, and at the end of my review I said it was clear there were more stories to tell in Arcane (the novel’s setting) and “I for one would love to see them.” Now Milford is back with a follow-up novel, The Broken Lands, and though it is set in a different place at a different time (though sharing some characters), it still has that great Boneshaker feel — and yep, I loved reading it.
The Broken Lands is set in pre-1900 Coney Island when Brooklyn and New York City are soon to be joined by the Brooklyn Bridge, a true physical and metaphorical “crossroads” in place and time, and, as the opening line of the novel tells us, “A crossroads can be a place of power.”
Living in the shadow of the bridge is a 15-year-old Coney Island card sharp named Sam, whose father died working on the bridge. Sam’s life is turned upside down by the arrival of the Fata Morgana Fireworks Company, whose pyrotechnic marvels are created by Professor Liao and his young female apprentice Jin. Soon, Sam and Jin, together with Liao, Ambrose Bierce, Tom Guyot (a strange guitar player whom we saw in The Boneshaker) and others are forced to face off against a demonically evil pair of strangers: High Walker and Mr. Bones, who seek to claim the city for the fearsome sounding Jack Hellcoal in a battle for the city’s literal soul, and the souls of those who live in it.
As with The Boneshaker, Milford’s characterization is rich and vivid, starting with the two young protagonists. Jin especially is a layered, poignant creation whose backstory is slowly revealed even as we watch the present-day Jin struggle with how that backstory affects her current life — the way she reacts to events and people, the way it keeps her guarded, always wary, the way it even affects how she moves. Like most well-written characters, she changes over the course of the novel’s events, but those changes are realistically (and painfully) slow, coming in stutters and stops and retreats, and Milford does both the novel and the reader a great favor in having the patience to take her time with Jin’s development.
Sam too is vividly presented, especially in that in-between time when, as he puts it, he’s all but invisible, when to adults he is “old enough not to choke on popcorn, but too young to be considered part of a gathering of adults.” Like Jin, Sam will change, will come into his own by the end, but not easily, not quickly, and not fully. Some of that will involve taking his place of responsibility in the world, and some of it involves his burgeoning feelings for Jin, feelings he’s never had before. That two young boy-girl protagonists end up circling around each other in the traditional “friends or more than friends” dance will come as no surprise to anybody, but Milford lends this potential romance a sense of depth and maturity, along with a strong undercurrent of darkness and sorrow, qualities too seldom seen in most such relationships. And as with her characterization, she gives it the time it deserves.
Besides the two main characters, the side characters are also sharply and fully presented, whether they appear in multiple scenes or make a one-off appearance. The two major villains are chillingly depicted, especially Walker, whose delight in violence (and his methods in expressing that delight) might be enough to give very young readers some very bad nights. A pharmacist Jin goes to for some supplies has his own compelling story and comes wholly alive on the page. James Hawks, a big boss in the rough and tumble Five Points section seems to step right off the history pages into real life. And the long tale of Jack Hellcoal is just a fantastically told American folktale; to say anything else about it would just ruin the fun of reading.
The setting also comes to life, with Coney Island shown in all its glory and degradation. It’s a world of bright sun and sand and well-off tourists as well as dark alleys, drunks, whores, and filth. Milford shows us the low and the high points, not only of the setting but of humanity, a spectrum nicely encapsulated by the horror and filth of those alleys showing us how low humans can fall and the wondrously tall towers of the Brooklyn Bridge which shows how high humanity can reach. Another major setting, the eponymous Broken Lands hotel, works on multiple levels as well, most obviously as a symbol of the country still reeling from the recent Civil War (a point highlighted by a veterans reunion held there) and now suffering a dreadful recession. And if indeed the country is broken, then a bridge is just what is needed, in more ways than one.
This sort of layered depth moves throughout the novel, through its setting, its characters, its themes. The plot is tense throughout, starting slowly then picking up speed and eventually building to a grand climax that should satisfy anyone looking for action scenes. While I thought the early slow pace was perfect, I can see how some might consider it a bit too slow. But don’t give up on it; give it the time it wants to take. My wife actually gave up on it at around pages 30-40 but after my recommendation picked it up again and was glad she gave it a second chance, enjoying it as much as I did. Actually, Milford hit the trifecta in our house, as once my wife finished it, our eleven-year-old son did as well, zipping through it in two “I don’t want to turn out the light; I’m engrossed” nights.
A few words of caution before wrapping up with the recommendation. As mentioned, there is some violence in here and while Milford does not linger over the details, there are several examples of people being brutally killed. Perhaps even more frightening to younger readers than the actual violence is the randomness of it; several are killed for no better reason than to send a message; they are simply plucked out at random for that purpose. Jin’s backstory also contains some disturbing events and while these are described in even less detail than the killings, it is also pretty clearly implied as to what happened. So this is not a book for the very young.
For anyone else however, I can’t recommend it highly enough. I loved The Broken Lands from beginning to end, reveling in its slow pace, its rich language, its vivid sense of place, its characters, its folktale underpinnings, its exploration of relationship and responsibility. As we move into the last quarter of the year, The Broken Lands is currently sitting nicely on my top ten list for 2012.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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