Worldshaker by Richard Harland
Worldshaker by Richard Harland may, on first blush, remind potential readers of Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles, with both of them focused on huge mobile steampunk cities crisscrossing Europe. Harland’s work, however, is much more focused setting-wise, taking place entirely within the confines of the eponymous Worldshaker, and mostly within a few small decks of the immense craft. There are lots of other differences as well. Worldshaker is more focused on class themes, has much more over-the-top characters, and is more fully YA than Reeve’s work, by which I mean I’m not sure it will appeal as much to adults or older high school students.
The setting is a Victorian-era Europe that veered off our own historical timeline around the time of Napoleon. Now, great juggernauts (France and Germany have their own for instance) cross the world in near-perpetual motion, stopping only rarely at a few fueling stations. Inside the Worldshaker, the upper decks are reserved for the upper classes, who themselves divide up into various strictly observed levels, and are served by speechless “menials.” Meanwhile, the machine’s engines are powered by the hordes of “Filthies” in the lower decks.
Col Porpentine is the grandson of the Supreme Commander, top of the class system. The book opens with his being named successor by his grandfather, who intends to send him to school and train him. But Col’s future has already begun to twist out of its clear-cut path when Riff, a young Filthy girl escaping from being turned into a Menial, took refuge in Col’s stateroom, though why Col sheltered her even he at first doesn’t know.
Soon, Col begins to learn that perhaps the world isn’t as he’s been brought up to believe. This lesson begins with Riff’s arrival, but continues as Col begins to move in several worlds: the upper class society which has taken notice of him now that he’s been named successor; the world of boys his own age as he leaves his tutor behind and enrolls in a school for the first time; and the world below decks, which at first he sees indirectly through Riff’s eyes and then directly through his own. And eventually this knowledge will lead him to the cusp of a decision: when the long-dreamed of revolution of the Filthies begins, which side will he take?
The plot is fast-paced with little back-story or exposition, few side plots, and hardly any digressions from the straightforward movement toward the personal and social climax at the end. Everything happens pretty quickly, with one revelation or change after another, and we don’t spend much time in any single scene. This meant the book at times felt oddly unbalanced (an escape scene lasting as long as a stroll down a corridor, say). Older readers might wish for a bit more complexity to the plot, but younger readers (I’d say 4th to 10th grade) will appreciate the streamlined sense of constant motion and inevitable change. Harland takes the same streamlined approach to the setting and outer world; we get a very rough sense of the Worldshaker but I can’t say it really felt like an entire world unto itself. While the greater world outside is very, very sketchy (and I’m not sure all that plausible either, but as it plays such a non-existent role it’s easy to just write it off as a suspension of disbelief).
Characters are a bit undeveloped as well and move in pretty predictable fashion. Changes usually come after a single experience rather than in fits and starts and backslides and perhaps they come a bit too easily. I can’t say I really felt attached to either of the main characters or that they really came alive for me as real people. The side characters vary from thin (Col’s scholarly friend or somewhat absentminded tutor) to purposely over the top (his grandfather or his new teacher). I’m not quite sure how I felt about the teacher; I’m guessing younger readers will find him more endearingly funny than I did.
The tone is a mix of grim and absurdly humorous. There’s a light touch throughout, but Harland doesn’t shy from the horrors of below decks (though he also doesn’t spend much time on them) or the finality and graphic nature of battle.
The book comes to a full resolution and could easily end where it does, though it also clearly has room to continue: there are other juggernauts out there after all, and if history tells us one thing, it’s that battles for liberation seldom remain contained.
Worldshaker makes for a good YA steampunk action fantasy with some major if unsubtle themes of class and justice and honor. But I would say it’s more for the Y than the A: younger readers will appreciate its fast, streamlined and simple plot movement as well as clear-cut themes and ethics. Older young adults (and adults) will probably react less positively, desiring more character and world development.
Worldshaker — (2010-2011) Ages 9-12 Publisher: Young adult. Steampunk. Col Porpentine understands how society works — the elite families enjoy a comfortable life on the Upper Decks on the great juggernaut Worldshaker, while the Filthies toil Below. And Col himself is being groomed by his grandfather, the supreme commander of Worldshaker, to be his successor. He has never questioned his place in the world, nor his illustrious future. When Col meets Riff, a Filthy girl on the run, his world is turned on its head. All his life he has been taught that the Filthies are like animals, without the ability to understand language or think for themselves. He has always known that all they are good for is serving in the Below, keeping Worldshaker running. But Riff is nothing like he ever expected. She is clever and quick, and despite the danger, Col is drawn to her. Can all the Filthies be like her? If Riff is telling the truth, then everything Col has always believed is a lie. And Col may be the only person with the power to do something about it — even if it means risking his whole future. Richard Harland’s sweeping steampunk saga of romance, privilege and social conscience will take readers on the ride of a lifetime to an enormous moving city that is at once strange and familiar.
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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