Saturday, May 18, 2013

Book Review: The Crown Phoenix Series

Today I'll be doing something a bit different. Over the past week I've been reading The Crown Phoenix series, by Alison DeLuca. Ms. DeLuca was generous enough to send the first three books in the mail free of charge. There was much rejoicing at the post office, in fact, people may have thought I was a bit mad. I was very excited to get my hands on these.

I'll be reviewing the first three books in the series here. For anyone interested, there is a fourth book, which I'll talk about after.

Warning: There will be spoilers.

The Night Watchman Express:

Each night, Miriam hears the eerie whistle of the Night Watchman Express. The sound of the train gives her visions of an underground factory and a terrifying laboratory.

Miriram has only her guardian's son for company, and she and Simon dislike one another from the start. But they must find a way to become friends or they will end up on the sinister Night Watchman Express.

What I Liked:

This book was great, full of adventure and mystery. The terrible guardians make bad guys you love to hate, and the mysterious Mana (Miriam's governess) keeps you guessing until the unexpected twist halfway through.

I thought it was wonderful that we get to see a different setting in this book. So much of steampunk is in London (I can't complain, my own is set there) so it was refreshing to hear so much about the island they end up on (Lampala). It's made me want to go visit, if such a place existed. 

The characters were well developed and lovable (or the love to hate kind). I started out hating Riki and ended up loving her, and Miriam is well fleshed out and relatable.

What I Didn't Like:

I would say not to pay the description of the book any mind. The book really doesn't focus a lot on The Night Watchman Express, for all that it's titled that. The back talks about how it gives her terrifying visions, when really, it's only given a cursory mention. Granted, they do end up on it later, but I didn't feel it was integral to the story.

I loathed the Marchpanes with every bit of my soul. I thought they were cruel and horrible and I wished the author had dropped a piano on both of them. Instead, they get a slap on the wrist, and later Miriam goes to live with them again. It's sort of like how I felt when I read that Dumbledore was sending Harry back to the Dursleys. "Well Harry, I know those people abused you pretty thoroughly, but I'm afraid I must leave you with them again. Sorry. Have a nice summer!" 

The Devil's Kitchen:

Miriam and Simon are kidnapped and taken to the terrifying destination known as Devil's Kitchen. Here they will face human experiments in a laboratory known as The Infirmary. Miriam is forced to work in an underground factory, while Simon is held in a luxurious prison by jailers who are as beautiful as they are deadly.

What I Liked:

I spent a good deal of this book frustrated and captivated. The frustration was not due to flaws in the book, but the type of situations the characters found themselves in. Miriam is basically a slave in a terrible factory that makes opium, and Simon is subjected to torture by a set of new and shiny bad guys, Barbara and her brother Valiant (who did play a role in the last book, but they're now the main bad guys in the series). 

This book basically had me reading non-stop. As I did with the Night Watchman Express, I finished it in a day. It's full of action and fascinating characters.

What I Didn't Like:

Again, the light treatment of the Marchpanes. They seem to have been changed from horrible and cruel to shallow and foolish. The characters don't seem nearly as threatening as they were at the beginning. Theodosia especially. Not to mention, I was a bit incredulous that they'd let Simon go off with Barbara and Valiant, and have no clue as to how their son was being treated, or even check up on him.

Lizzie and her beautiful sister Ninna are caught up in several mysteries: The squire's eldest son cannot leave the attic. An old typewriter seems to move time and space. A passenger hides in a secret room. A beautiful visitor is plotting against them. 

And Lizzie discovers that she has a strange, new ability. She and her sister must discover the secrets of The Lamplighters Special before their enemy catches up with them.

What I Liked:

Again I was stuck reading this book nearly all day. I was intrigued by the romance between Lizzie and Toby, the Squire's son, and Barbara and Valiant were once again, evil enough to be maddening. Lizzie's struggle to get used to life as a housemaid, her parents poor health and demands for "tonic" and the threatening Siddons (the woman who dresses Barbara) all make for a fascinating read.

What I Didn't Like:

Keep in mind, that there is another book after this, so some of what I say might be resolved. However, I found there were a few things that didn't make sense to me. The "strange new ability" that Lizzie develops is indeed strange. Not to mention, it sort of appears out of nowhere. If there was foreshadowing set down for it, or hints at it before that, I obviously missed them. What's more, the ability is strange and fascinating  but it's never really explained. I wouldn't normally harp on that. In the case of Mana and her ability, I'm fine with it being subtle and not over analyzed. Telekinesis is an established thing. But Lizzie's ability is new and different to me, I would have liked more. How did it develop? Why does she have it? And why on earth does Toby have it as well? The latter seemed like a bit of a stretch to me. They both have this crazy unusual power? That said, this might all be explained in later books, I'm not sure.

I found the very end a bit strange. Barbara, who I paint as "absolute evil" momentarily wonders if she could be good. This rang a little too "Disney" for me. I don't want Barbara to be good, I want her to be hit by a falling anvil. 

Also, why could Toby never come out of his rooms? Why does he get stuck in the cabin later? At first I thought it was a physiological thing, but now I'm thinking it's more. This is never really explained, and the characters don't seem to think it's that odd.

Siddons bothered me. Her irrational hatred towards Lizzie seemed almost personal, and it was never touched on in the end. I wanted to know why she hated her so much. Again, this might be explained in the next book.

Okay the very end twist. I'm going to spoil it. Look away. In fact, if you want the twist, you'll have to highlight what comes next, because I'm going to write it in white so you can't see it. 

In the end, it's revealed that Miriam's mother is black. Okay, so she's half Lampala (Lampalan?) The cover of The Night Watchman Express, shows a very pale little girl with black hair, who I assume is Miriam. One of the things I liked best about Alison DeLuca's series, is that Ms. DeLuca didn't dance around the issue of race. She embraced it head on and dealt with it, while so many steampunk authors don't touch it for fear of offending someone. That said, if Miriam was half Lampalan, it would be pretty darn obvious. Her skin would be very dark. That would have gotten the same extreme reactions as a full blooded Lampalan, I should think. But this was never mentioned at all. Again, maybe it will be touched on in further books, but I'm not sure how you explain that no one ever said anything about her dark skin, especially the Marchpanes, who took every little jab at her they could.

Overall Thoughts on The Series Thus Far:

I literally read these three books in three days. They were wonderful. The writing was terrific. I've no complaints at all on that aspect. The use of British slang was done well, and the characters all sounded natural and real.

 My overall thought is that I would call them Edwardian fantasy, more than Steampunk. I know I've complained about micro labeling Steampunk genres, but in this case I wouldn't call it "hardcore" Steampunk. There was one Steampunk contraption (the Crown Phoenix) which was very cool. And there was the Night Watchman express itself. Briefly there was mention of a steam powered ship. 

This is of course, just my personal opinion. I don't think it takes away from the books at all. But reader is forewarned, it's not as "Steampunky", or as heavy on the tech side as you might expect (or at least, there aren't as many steam powered gadgets as you might expect, and the cities in England seem to be much the same as they would have been).

Is it worth reading? Absolutely. If you're a fan of mystery, magic and adventure, you won't be disappointed. However, if you don't like it when a book sucks you in and refuses to let you go, you may want to pass these up. Luckily I'm a fast reader, but each one still stole half my day away, and I sort of wandered around trying to find lunch, still reading.

For someone that loves pretty shiny covers, these books are also addictive. The covers are beautiful and glossy, and they get a special place on my bookshelf.

Personally, I'm looking forward to getting my hands on the next book, The South Sea Bubble, which will be released in the spring.

If you wish to check out Alison DeLuca and her books, her blog is HERE.