Review: A Spark Unseen

A Spark Unseen by Sharon Cameron. Sequel to The Dark Unwinding. Scholastic. 2013. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: The 1850s. England. Katharine Tulman awakes to find someone trying to break into her room. She prevents the kidnapping of her Uncle Tully, but more threats to his safety and peace of mind come. What can she do?

She realizes has to leave the haven of Stranwyne Keep, her first real home. She has to leave England.

Among the property Katharine has inherited is a house in Paris. Paris, which also happens to be the last place that Lane Moreau was known to be.

Is anything ever that easy? Of course not. Katharine is still caught between the politics of two countries, England and France. She’s not sure who she can trust. Can she find Lane and keep those she loves safe?

The Good: As a quick recap of The Dark Unwinding: orphaned Katharine had been raised by her rather mean and nasty aunt. Katharine goes to her Uncle Tully’s at the request of her aunt, to assist in getting Tully committed; instead, Katharine finds a home and acceptance with Tully, his home, his workers, and even finds love with Lane. Tully acts like a child but is a genius inventor, spending most of his time making elaborate toys. (It’s never mentioned, but it sounds like Tully is somewhere on the Autism spectrum.) Both the French and English government wants to misuse Uncle Tully’s inventions to create weapons of war. By the end, it turns out Katharine is the true heir; she can take care of Uncle Tully and escape her aunt; and someone important to her dies in the struggle for Tully’s inventions. (The death so shocked me I still half-believe it didn’t really happen.)

Given those deaths, Katharine’s fears for Uncle Tully and others around her are well founded. It’s also important to note how alone Katharine had been before she met Tully, Lane and the others in her uncle’s household. She is driven to keep those close to her safe, because she isn’t use to having family and friends she loves.

Oh, a quick observation about Uncle Tully’s inventions. I’ve heard these books described as Steam Punk. Given the nature of Uncle Tully’s inventions, I’d say Electric Punk or Mechanical Punk makes more sense. I’m no expert, but they are based on real inventions of the time period just “amped up” a bit.

When Katharine arrives in Paris, there are other English people there, fleeing the cholera in England. In fact, her new next door neighbors are one such English family. The good news? It’s not anyone she knows. The bad news? One of their guests is Mrs. Hardcastle, a good friend of Katharine’s aunt. Yes, the same aunt who made her life so miserable. Mrs. Hardcastle and the neighbors actually adds a bit of humor to this adventure, because she is a bit of a nosy busybody and the whole family has no clue about what is “really” going on.

What is “really” going on? Katharine wants to find Lane, even though she’s been told he is dead. Katharine arrives in Paris with only two allies, her lawyer, Mr. Babcock, and her maid, Mary. She does find someone to help her, another friend of her next door neighbor, Mr. Marchand. While it would sound, at first, that finding a missing man is hardly an adventure, keep in mind that Lane was in Paris as an English spy, working against Napoleon III. Remember how the English government hasn’t been exactly nice to Katharine and her uncle. Whether it’s Katharine discovering the truth of Lane’s death, or Katharine finding Lane alive, Katharine is not safe.

What else to add? There’s a few threads and a bunch of characters going on, with the politics and spying, and Katharine never being quite sure who to trust yet having to work with people to find Lane. The house in Paris has a housekeeper, and another bit of fun (for me) and stress (for Katharine) is that the housekeeper and her family refuse to leave the house, no matter what Katharine says. Is the housekeeper a real threat, or just an annoying woman who refuses to listen to someone as young as Katharine? And, of course, there is also all the history, both “big” (we meet Napoleon III and learn a bit more about him!) and “small” (what was a Channel crossing like in the 1850s?)

I loved  how it all comes together at the end, almost like a puzzle box being put together to form one whole. Even what appears to be coincidence is not, it’s just a bigger picture than Katharine had realized.

Other reviews: Sarcasm and Lemons; Library of a Book Witch; Through the Looking Glass (this has some fun spoilers that are best read after reading A Spark Unseen).




Review: The Dark Unwinding

The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron. Scholastic. 2012. Review copy from publisher.

The Plot: June, 1852. England. Orphaned Katherine Tulman owes everything to her Aunt Alice. Not in a good way. When Katherine was left orphaned, Alice was the one who took in her late husband’s niece. Aunt Alice makes it known that in every possible way that without Alice, Katherine would be on the streets. With nothing. Aunt Alice fears that her husband’s eldest brother is spending all his money, which will mean nothing left for Alice’s son.

Aunt Alice’s instructions are clear: Katherine is to travel to Stranwyne Keep, the family estate. Get proof that her uncle is incapable of handling his own affairs. Report back to Aunt Alice and her solicitors, so that Alice can seize control of the family fortune and property on behalf of the sole living heir, her own son, Robert. (The family property goes strictly to the eldest living male heir, so Katherine, as a female, is excluded.) Katherine agrees, because as a poor orphan with no prospects, her only hope for future food and shelter is that young Robert gains his inheritance so he can, like his mother before him, take care of the poor relative.

Katherine arrives at Stranwyne. She meets her uncle Frederick. Aunt Alice is both right, and wrong, about what is happening with her uncle and the Tulman fortune. Her uncle is child-like, who lives with odd self-imposed rules and is also a brilliant inventor. Money has been spent on the inventions; but money has also been spent in taking 900 men, women and children from the workhouses of London to create a community that, given time, will not just be self-sufficient but also a source of income. The longer Katherine stays, the more she becomes attached to her uncle and the local villagers; but she cannot forget that it is her aunt who ensures her future. What should she do?

The Good: Uncle Frederick’s inventions are, for the most part, automatons. The descriptions of them seem almost fantastical; but this is not a story of magic or fantasy. It’s historical fiction, and the described automatons reflect the science of the day. Cameron’s website includes links to some videos of automatons. Stranwyne is also based in historic reality: Welbeck Abbey. I love how two of the aspects of this book are things that seem so unreal or unlikely that one could think The Dark Unwinding is a fantasy. It is not. Instead, it’s the type of historical fiction I really enjoy, grounded in lesser-known history.

Katherine is an interesting character, between a rock and a hard place. Aunt Alice is a nasty bit of business. When Katherine meets some resistance and suspicion from her uncle’s employees, Katherine thinks “the normalcy of being in a room with with a woman who despised me had restored some of my common sense.” Katherine, despite herself, wants more from life even if she cannot voice it, cannot dream it. She decides to delay reporting back to her aunt, and as each day goes by, she grows closer to the villagers: the housekeeper/cook, Mrs. Jeffries; her 18 year old nephew, Lane; Davy, a young mute boy; Ben Aldridge, an engineering student from Cambridge studying her uncle’s inventions. All seem to share a common goal: convince Katherine to not tell the truth about Uncle Tully’s condition. Are their friendships, are the flirtations of Lane and Ben, to be trusted? Katherine isn’t even sure she can trust herself: she starts sleepwalking and having memory loss.

I loved the idea of the Tulman family (Frederick’s mother, not his brothers or his sister in law) trying to figure out a way to protect Frederick and the money; and the solution of creating a self-sufficient village. Invest in crafts and industry, an investment of several years, and yes, it will cost money at first, but in the long run it creates a home and livelihood for people in addition to preserving enough family money. I also loved Uncle Tully and his inventions. Can all these people survive Aunt Alice and the laws that seem to be on her side? I also loved the Stranwyne Keep itself: full of rooms and hallways and pathways.

Finally, I loved that The Dark Unwinding surprised me. First, by not being a fantasy. Second, by it’s interesting look at history. Next, by Katherine herself, damaged and hurt and learning for the first time to trust and love. Finally – the ending! So unexpected yet it makes sense. And it’s brave because it makes sense but it’s not what the reader wants. The Dark Unwinding rather gives the reader what he needs. A good story.

Other reviews: The Book Smugglers; Reading Everywhere; The Ninja Librarian (and author interview).