The Story of Cirrus Flux by Matthew Skelton
Matthew Skelton’s The Story of Cirrus Flux is an uneven YA novel that solidly entertains, though one wishes for stronger characters and a greater sense of place.
The Story of Cirrus Flux is set in London, 1783. The title character is an orphan whose father was a famed Antarctic explorer years ago, though Cirrus doesn’t discover this for some time. The book opens in 1756 during one of Cirrus’ father’s journeys, in which he managed to find and contain a small sample of the mysterious “Breath of God.” Unbeknownst to Cirrus, he left this sample to his son before leaving on another expedition, financed by the Guild of Empirical Scientists, in which he attempted to find more of the Breath and from which he never returned.
We flash ahead to 1783, when scientific experimentation was flowering and was as much show and spectacle as learned study. Several creepy members of the Guild — the sinister Mr. Sidereal (with eyes all over London) and the coldly calculating mesmerist Madame Orrery (who promises her clients she’ll expunge their unwanted memories) — start to suspect that Cirrus has his father’s sample, and attempt to capture it and him. Meanwhile, another somewhat sinister adult has been keeping an eye on the orphanage where Cirrus lives, along with his best friend Bottle Top and a young girl named Pandora. Cirrus and Pandora’s storylines are mostly separate, coming together now and then as they try to escape and stop Mr. Sidereal and Madame Orrery, and perhaps learn a little more about their pasts.
The plot is solid if not exhilaratingly original and moves along at a good clip. The ending is a bit abrupt, and I found myself wishing there and at other times that the two young characters had been more active in their own outcomes, especially Cirrus. The action seems a bit distant from the characters.
The characters themselves are somewhat flat, somewhat rote — the plucky girl orphan, the confused but plucky boy orphan. I’m guessing neither one will stand out particularly in the memories of young readers among all the other orphan characters they will meet or have already met in their reading. The adults, on the other hand, are richly and intensely characterized, from the steely-ice demeanor of Madame Orrery to the oily voyeurism of Mr. Sidereal (great name) to the bombast of scientific showman Mr. Leechcraft. Included in this mix as well is the orphanage director, whom we see truly torn over his responsibilities and fears, and the best friend of Cirrus’ father, who plays a major role in the story with his flaming bird and hot air balloon (more of him would have been fine). Had the two major characters — the children — as sharply drawn and original as the adults, this would have been a much stronger tale.
The setting presentation is uneven; at times Skelton does a wonderful job of conveying the sights, sounds, and smells of 18th century London, while at other times the background is less vivid. Younger readers probably won’t care much, but older-younger readers might wish for a bit more depth to the setting, and a fuller sense of a wholly different time and place.
In the end, The Story of Cirrus Flux is a bit disappointing, especially the close. It’s a paler cousin, perhaps, of Philip Pullman’s HIS DARK MATERIALS trilogy, with its mix of youth and science and a sinister group chasing after a strange substance. Very young readers will find it entertaining enough, though I doubt they’ll be clamoring for a sequel. Their older brothers and sisters will find it a bit thin.
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