This is an alternate history steampunk story where steam tech, specifically from the hands of Nicola Tesla, is misused and manages to literally shake the world apart. The Tremblers is set after the initial disaster, but the consequences are permanent and serious. This is the type of steampunk I prefer because it explores the impact of such a disaster on the different classes and the compromises made in the name of safety.
The Tremblers is a very complicated book masquerading as a simple adventure. I’ll admit I didn’t connect with the characters as much as I might have expected, but this may have been due to my fascination with the ideas and politics. Everything happens at a dead run, leaving little time to absorb either the changes in the characters or the tragedies, while little is as it seems. The book is an odd blend of very dark and yet with light moments, largely between the two main characters, Charlie and Ash.
It starts with an important, but not critical, prologue that introduces Ash, and then spins into Charlie’s introduction as a society debutante expected to make a good marriage. Her scene isn’t limited to that, though, because the dark underpinnings of society slap her in the face not once but twice, making the glamor of her surroundings a delusion while the police state they accept as for their own good turns sour when someone she knows is caught up in it.
The innovative steam tech, political maneuverings, and complicated motivations of pretty much everyone whether on Charlie’s side or the villains of the piece are what make this book strong and enjoyable. I very much appreciated the character growth from ignorance to awareness for both Charlie and Ash, though in some ways, Ash had further to go both because he believes himself aware and because he’s a true believer.
Religion has a hand in this story, but with a gentle touch that lays out the difference between faith and acting in the name of faith much like how the politics explore the differences between safety at all cost and personal freedom. The constant rewriting of our understanding acts as both a strength and a weakness to this story. There’s a lot of mystery around what is going on and why, the enemies and friends are not always clear, and many aspects are moving targets.
I did have issues with the main characters’ agency and ownership of the story, in part because they are ignorant of so much and her father’s journal is believed to be as a solution to everything if they can only find a way to translate it. Speaking vaguely so as not to spoil, I appreciated how that faith proved not as conclusive as they believed, leaving them with some aspects to figure out on their own. Normally, I would have been too frustrated at not being able to see the big picture, but I managed to skate by in part because I knew more than the characters through the use of many different points of view. The book also has good seeding, so I could start putting things together even when the characters remained ignorant, or in Ash’s case on something things, deliberately secretive.
The book takes some unexpected twists and turns, things rarely seen in novels of this type and yet which work within the story well. I cannot say more on this topic without spoiling, but I will say the book broke a number of genre conventions, some of which may frustrate readers while others add nicely to the tension.
The Tremblers is so much more than a simple story, and it asks a lot of readers because the tangled web of motivations denies any clear good versus evil vision. To some degree, everyone is working for a good. The question is more how good is defined and what they’re willing to sacrifice (or whom) to achieve that aim. Ultimately, despite my quibbles, I enjoyed experiencing this journey through Charlie’s innocent eyes and Ash’s indoctrinated ones. It’s the kind of book that leaves you chewing over various aspects long after the last page is turned.
P.S. I received this ARC from the publisher through NetGalley in return for an honest review.