Friday, December 26, 2008

Review – “The Engine’s Child” by Holly Phillips

Lanterns and flickering bulbs light the shadowy world of the rasnan, the island at the edge of a world-spanning ocean that harbors, in its ivory towers and mossy temples, the descendants of men and women who long ago fled a world ruined by magical and technological excess. But not all the island’s inhabitants are resigned to exile. A mysterious brotherhood seeks to pry open doors that lead back to their damaged, dangerous homeland. Others risk the even greater danger of flight, seeking new lands and new freedoms in the vast, uncharted sea.

Amid a web of conspiracy and betrayal, three people threaten to shatter this fragile world. Scheming Lord Ghar, faithful to lost gods and forbidden lore, plays an intricate power game; Lady Vashmarna, an iron-willed ruler, conceals a guilty secret behind her noble façade; and Moth, a poor, irreverent novice, holds perhaps the darkest power of all: a mysterious link to a shadowy force that may prove to be humanity’s final hope–or its ultimate doom.
The Engine’s Child is one of those literary fantasy novels that you can read just to let the prose wash over you. To submerse yourself and soak in a richly conceived world –
The drop of water clung to the cracked ceiling for an instant, glimmering like an eye in the light creeping in through the filigree if the shrine’s outer wall. Touched by the penitents’ murmured prayers, it quivered like a frog’s egg stirred by interior life, and like a frog’s egg it swelled, grew fecund, and dropped, felled by its own abundance, to the floor.
The world of The Engine’s Child consists of a single island in a vast ocean, a city separate from the countryside and the city itself divided into bastion and bay. The people are similarly divided – by religion, by politics, by birth. This is a world in decay, struggling to hold things together, but there are also secret groups seeking mystical solutions – the secret and banned Society of Doors from among the powerful and privileged, and the cultist mundabi flourishing within the ranks of the poor and disenfranchised.

The Society plans to open a portal to the original world/reality lost in myth and time despite the warnings and caveats of the priesthood. Moth, a novice, and yet more then a novice is the most complex of the many fascinating characters. While publicly a novice scholar, she is also a secret leader among the mundabi, and an architect of the engine, a device capable of harnessing mysterious and mystical energy of the wider world, part of a larger and broader plan to search for land beyond the reaches of the world they know, to find hope and opportunity. Moth comes from among the poor of the tidal bay, but was sponsored to the Scholarium by Lady Vashmarna for whom she also works and plots.

The unfolding and revealing of the agendas of the various political and power factions takes place gradually and often with a sense of dislocation. Many of the events are deliberately obscured and obliquely approached demanding your attention and drawing you in. I sometimes found myself echoing characters who in striving to understand their role and place, are heard to more then once utter – “Yes, but what does it mean?” And that of course is the beauty of Phillips narrative as plans and plots converge and all becomes clear.

The Engine’s Child is not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one. The narrative is challenging and the dialogue unique and fresh. I particularly liked this exchange between Silk and Moth. Bets had been placed on the likely time for the birth of Moth’s baby using Moth’s visibly pregnant condition as the barometer. She remarks –
“Timepiece!” Moth was mildly offended, “What am I, a clockwork womb?”
This offered a stylish and delightful reinforcement of the “steampunkish” (if that is even a word) nature of the engine she had created and 'birthed'.

At the risk of applying a label to The Engine’s Child, I would describe it as belonging to the New Weird (see the Wikipedia definition here), alike to the works of China Miéville. This is not your traditional fantasy, but an excursion to an island of diverting strangeness and curious possibilities. I liked this a lot and hope you give it a try too.

AUTHOR AND BOOK SHOWCASEOfficial Holly Phillips Website

Read an excerpt of Chapter 1.

Random House Publishing Group
Published: November 2008
ISBN #: 9780345499653
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 400

Other Books:

  • In the Palace of Repose (2006) – short stories
  • The Burning Girl (2006)


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