I wasn't planning on reading Holly Phillips' newest novel, but something about the premise kept nagging at me. And since I have a sweet spot for Canadian authors, when I found myself with some room in my reading schedule I decided to give it a shot.
Descendants of a society who long ago fled a world ruined by magical and technological excess now live on an island at the edge of a world-spanning ocean. Although religious and temporal authorities forbid even the thought of a return to their erstwhile domain, not all the inhabitants are content to resign themselves to exile. A secret brotherhood seeks to open doors which might lead back to their damaged homeland, while others seek new lands in the uncharted seas surrounding them.
I found the backdrop so intriguing that I had to give this novel a chance. Unfortunately, the execution of it all fell flat, resulting in an uneven read that left a lot to be desired.
The worldbuilding is beyond the shadow of a doubt the most interesting facet of this book. The universe is reminescent of India and Sri Lanka, and as such it's quite unlike what's out there. The presence of technology, though heavily regulated by the powers that be, also adds a little something to this tale. Phillips has an eye for details, and the imagery is arresting. The narrative is rich and evocative. And yet, we learn very little about the back story, the characters, and the larger scheme of things. Hence, for all that richness of details in the various POV characters' narrative, the author fails to flesh out the overall story itself.
Holly Phillips also writes poetry, and it shows in her flowery prose. Though this occasionally slows down the rhythm of the novel, it didn't get in the way of the storytelling. Still, even if The Engine's Child is a relatively short book, the pace drags in several portions of the novel.
What ultimately killed it for me was the subpar characterization. The principal protagonist, Moth, is particularly unbalanced. At times brilliant and engaging, she sadly is insipid and annoying for the most part. Lady Vashmarna starts off as probably the most intriguing character of the bunch, but gradually loses substance as the story progresses. The rest of the cast is comprised of more or less uninspired men and women who are totally forgettable.
There is a lot of inner musing going on in every POV, and most of these ponderings add very little to the tale and seem to go nowhere. In addition, there is not much in the way of revelations, and readers are often forced to interpret events on their own. To me, it felt as though the author wasn't fully in control of her story.
The vivid prose will likely satisfy some readers. Alas, poor characterization and uneven plotlines will certainly put off others. Interestingly enough, Holly Phillips' The Engine's Child is the sort of work which gets nominated every year for a variety of SFF awards and which leaves fans on every SFF message board scratching their heads in confusion.
The final verdict: 6.25/10