I can't remember where I picked up my paperback copy of 'Shanghai Sparrow' but I'm very glad I did. I can't remember either whether it was the cover art of a mechanical dragon that prompted me to grab it or the combination of 'espionage', 'etheric science' and 'murder' that it promised. Of course, the title is a pretty fine hook all on its own.
The blurb on the back is much more routine; enticing but no more enticing than a hundred other novels. It doesn't do justice to this book, which on some levels is much more than its competition.
You see, arguably the biggest problem with steampunk literature is the fact that the Victorian era was an exercise in extremes and Victorian London was the heart of that. For every great invention and scientific stride forward, there was a social calamity and true tale of horror. And most writers ignore that and build utopias for their steampunk adventures where everything is clean, nobody has to die (except the villain, of course) and women can achieve on their own merits. Gaie Sebold is clearly not most writers.
Our heroine, Eveline Duchen, who goes by 'Evvie', is a street urchin, a young orphan who went through a number of trials to end up in Limehouse, working for Ma Pether as a pickpocket and grifter, for food and shelter. Even then, the food is likely to be once a day and she sleeps in a house packed to the rafters with others. Sebold doesn't deluge us with grime, because that would be utterly depressing, but she does acknowledge that it exists and she uses it to craft a more believable Victorian London than I've read about in steampunk and urban fantasy as long as I can remember.
What's more, there's an abundance of sexism. Evvie's mother, Madeleine, was an adherent of the 'etheric science' hinted on the cover, which means that she builds machinery that makes sounds, which in turn can heal. It's absolutely the sort of thing that the Victorians would play with, as everything seemed possible to them, but women would not be expected to join in, or at least not in public. So, after Madeleine's husband's death, things change in a lot of ways that are frustrating to her and, in turn, to her daughters. It's fascinating to see this in play through the eyes of a pre-teen girl who is naive about many things and savvy about others, especially in flashback.
Of course, Evvie escapes that world in ways which I won't spoil, but the experience highlights how much this book is for steampunk aficionados who know full well that women are just as capable as men and are deserving of equal treatment but simply weren't allowed to prove it in the London of Queen Victoria.
I adored what comes next. A representative of Her Majesty's government, Mr. Holmforth, is stationed in Shanghai, where he's become aware of an invention by Wu Jisheng, the 'steam powered dragon' which is mentioned on the back cover, that uses etheric science. He believes that it will work to further his own agenda, which we don't discover until late in the book, but the operation of the device requires a talent rather than a skill. And so, believing that Evvie inherited her mother's talent, he seeks her out and takes advantage of a colleague's 'pet project', the Britannia School, which the Ministry, in the form of his boss, Rupert Forbes-Cresswell, deems utterly ridiculous but which nonetheless still exists, to get her ready for what he needs her to do in Shanghai.
What is the Britannia School, you might ask? Well, it's effectively a school for female spies. How cool is that? Well, Sebold does try to be as believable as she can so it's far from the joyous place of freedom that you might be conjuring up in your mind. However, it still offers possibility and that's a powerful thing to be given when you're a girl who's been blocked her whole life by society and had to pick everything she got out of other people's pockets.
I loved all this. I've never been a teenage girl, let alone one in whichever 19th century year this book is set, but I'm English and we root for the underdog; an someone be more of an underdog than a teenage orphan girl in the Victorian era? I don't think so. And where Evvie ends up makes me fascinated to read on, which apparently is possible because Sebold has already published a sequel, 'Sparrow Falling'.
If you haven't gathered, I'd highly recommend this book. That doesn't mean that it's the best thing since sliced bread, though. There's another angle to the world that Sebold created which is important for the tone and crucial for the plot but still seems to clash a little. I'm talking about the Folk, who are the little creatures of myth that live in the English countryside (and the Chinese countryside, as we do, as the title suggests, spend some time in Shanghai). We don't spend a lot of time with them, because they keep away from the noise of the big cities, but they exist and they interact with the human race in ways that have meaning to our story. That's fine, and I'm all for it, but it's odd to see that here when the book seems so grounded in the harsh realities of the Victorian era.
Then again, we focus on throwing Evvie into those harsh realities and watching her find ways to get out of them, so it's hardly a stretch to add an old school fantasy element to what is clearly a steampunk novel. I'm not complaining, just wondering whether it would have been improved further by minor changes. Is the grounding more important than the adventure or vice versa? Do they have to work in balance? If the routine at the Britannia School was more emphasised, would that have fleshed it out or distracted us? If Miss Caingrim was more on top of her students, would that be more realistic or more restrictive to what Evvie ends up getting up to?
I don't know. What I do know is that, whether this one could be better or not, it works and it works well. I've never read Gaie Sebold before, but I'll be seeking out 'Sparrow Falling' and I may try to track down 'Babylon Steel' and 'Dangerous Gifts', her first two books which belong to a different series. I like what she has to say and I like how she says it. I look forward to reading more. ~~ Hal C F Astell