What do you get when you mix the skits of Monty Python and the wild adventures of Alice in Wonderland? Something like this book, perhaps. Or maybe if you set them to boil then steep your favorite black tea with the results. While Monty Python doesn’t get a direct mention, the reshaped histories refer to the proposal of a universal theory of matter that was first recorded in an 1835 children’s book called Alex in Sunderland, so the second influence I saw is somewhat credited.
The book starts with an extensive history of the way things are, and how they got there, conveyed in a compelling, humorous, and snarky narrative tone. This narrator offers none of the security of an omniscient voice due to a liking for drawing out the suspense and leading the reader on. It’s both delightful and charming though this narrator appears only in the asides going forward. The majority of the book is in a close third, offering a more personal–though no less quirky–tone.
You might be misled by the title to think Jonathan Skarry and Mercurio Smith are the main characters. To be honest, Skarry holds the point of view often enough, but there is a large, and varied, cast. This includes a pirate crew, their king, skywaymen, clockwork creatures, and an octopus, though the last does not have a speaking role.
The format reminds me of a radio play with a “word from our sponsor” being the historical asides that show us how close, and yet so far, from our history this world finds itself. Instead of sound effects, it has Rowland, the Tinker, desperate to explain the complex details of each clockwork creation he may, or may not have, had a hand in. This while everyone else tries to ignore or shut him up.
Half the characters speak in thick, but understandable, dialects. The book casually corrects bias that exists both in this world and ours when the characters encounter it, as often in one of the other main cast members as in the story itself. The history might appear at first as a feminist fantasy, for example, but quickly trips over its own feet, or is it tongue as in tongue-in-cheek, to reveal a more balanced perspective.
I’ve reviewed my share of odd novels, and this certainly deserves a place among them. While the history it springs from is very much the British Isles, that spring was rather over wound so when it released, much chaos sprang up to replace the events we would recognize. This is also true of the plot, as even the characters comment at one point. There are goals, though Jonathan is rarely a driver in them beyond survival, but for the most part, a lot of events happen that reveal more about the people and the challenges they face. These events build on each other, and individual character goals drive where this adventure goes next, but not in an organized fashion. Rather, the goals occur in a chaos where people stumble over each other in a desperate attempt to get a better seat in a mad game of musical chairs. Efforts are as likely to go against the driving person as to offer benefit, and in the most frustrating, for the actor, and amusing, for the reader, way.
There are some books that succeed on plot. Others on characterization. This one is held together by the glue of a strong, and fascinatingly quirky, narrative voice that imbues every moment in this topsy-turvy world with a sense of the ridiculous.