WHAT I LIKED: It's unique. Penelope's father, Magnus Roma, invents these crazy animals and contraptions that have personality and can be endearing. I especially liked Klok, this metal robot-man who cannot speak out loud but does have human-like emotions. He only wants to protect Penelope, no matter the cost. Xerxes, a metallic griffon, is also easy to like, even though I was totally confused as to how he had "a part of Magnus's soul."
The characters. There are lots of them, and most are either Magnus's inventions or circus performers. Practically all of them have a sordid background, be they thievin' orphans or mute fake mermaids or heavily-tattooed snake men with Oxford educations.
There is a ton of action, something I always love. This book has so much action that it's almost too quick, as though LJ Hatton is telling us the story in one long, excited, fast-talking breath. It did feel a bit too much like telling rather than showing, but I think many young readers would like the pacing and the fact that there is hardly any slow-down in action.
For some reason, this book has a Wizard of Oz feel to it, which is kind of cool. Maybe it's in how Klok reminds me of the Tin Woodman, or maybe it's how Penelope/Penn is on a long journey to find her way home. Maybe it's the cast of endearing, quirky circus characters who accompany her along the way. Whatever it is that makes it feel like Oz, I loved it.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: It took me forever to get into. For the first several days I had the book, I could barely get through a whole page before falling asleep. I started over twice. I forced myself to read maybe the first 60 pages. Thankfully, it does pick up once the train is attacked, but it sure took a lot of set-up to get there.
I was confused, and there is a lot left unexplained. Is this set in the future or the past? Why do some women wear corsets? I get that they are Luddites who fear technology, but what does that have to do with wearing a comfortable pair of jeans? How did Penelope's father manage to survive (and hide) five powerful girls when other families could barely survive one? How is the circus a good disguise? Am I to believe no one ever suspected these girls were touched?
Precious little romantic tension. I get that this isn't a romance--it's a fantasy adventure with steampunk and some awesome characters. But that first kiss between Penelope and Jermay happens so quickly I thought maybe Penelope was dreaming. These best friends liked each other for so long before the story that it seemed too easy that they just talk about it and BAM! Kissing happens. Jermay knew Penn was a girl all along, but she's been living as a boy for her entire life. It seems like it would take some time for Penelope and others around her to adjust to her girlness. The kissing happens less than a day after Penn becomes Penelope. The relationship is very sweet, and there is a possible set-up for a love triangle in the sequel, but I would have loved to see more romantic tension in this one, too.
That cover. Yuck. It's all psychedelic and trippy with the stars and the fire and the girl with long hair (Penelope's hair is very short). It does not make me want to read the book. I don't think the target audience will pick this up based on the front cover. In fact, the cover is so bad that this will probably be in my "Love the book, hate the cover" booktalk that I do every year.
THE BOTTOM LINE: It's one of the more unique books I've read, and I'm sure many readers will like it. The writing is solid, and the characters well-defined. While it wasn't really my thing, I have no doubt that steampunk fans will love it.
STATUS IN MY LIBRARY: I am planning to get this. I can definitely "sell" it in my library (it will need me to sell it--I don't see my boys picking it up without my prodding).
READALIKES: For Darkness Shows the Stars (Peterfreund); The Wizard of Oz (Baum)
- Overall: 4/5--not my thing, but steampunk fans will love it
- Creativity: 5/5--VERY unique
- Characters: 5/5--memorable, unique characters
- Engrossing: 3/5--I had a hard time getting into it, but there is a ton of action
- Writing: 4/5--no argument that it's well-written
- Appeal to teens: 3/5--it's steampunk; it seems my students either love it or hate it
- Appropriate length to tell the story: 4/5--a bit hard to get into, but the action doesn't stop
- Language: none
- Sexuality: mild; some mild kissing, brief and nondescript mention of past selling of girls, presumably as prostitutes
- Violence: mild; fantasy violence, fighting
- Drugs/Alcohol: none
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