I picked this up because I loved Airborn, Oppel’s steampunk airship (is that redundant?) adventure, and also because TRAINS. (Unfortunately the Amtrak Pennsylvanian I read it on was not as well-appointed as the opulent Boundless.) This tale takes place after the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway, on the maiden voyage of this Titanic of trains. It carries assorted unscrupulous characters, a mysterious circus, and the funeral car of the railway baron, which is stuffed with more goodies than a Pharaoh’s tomb.
Will, son of the new railway boss, wants an adventure. Maren, tightrope acrobat extraordinaire, wants a circus of her own. Everybody wants to rob the funeral car. It’s all mostly an excuse to have dramatic fights on top of a moving train.
Which I’m all for, generally speaking. Bring on the steampunk train adventures! But this one fell flat for me. The characters were generic, and the train didn’t have enough cool features to make up for it. The fights and circus tricks were fun, but not fun enough to keep me from skimming.
Most damning for me, though, are the book’s clumsy and ill-considered attempts at messages about race and class. (Some light spoilers ahead, but not for anything really surprising.) On his adventure Will sees the colonist class cars, full of desperately poor immigrants, and makes a lot of noise about telling his father or helping them in some other way — but drops that thread entirely by the end. Mr. Dorian, the Metis ringmaster, is the mouthpiece for Native rights, most notably in a clunky buffalo-shooting scene. But the Native hunters themselves are savage caricatures, and Mr. Dorian turns out to be of dubious moral character himself. (Yes, it makes sense that the Native men would be savage “braves” in Will’s 19th century thoughts, but it’s not like this book is exactly chock-full of historical accuracy in any other respect. It’s meant to be a romp, so romp elsewhere.)
We do meet a trustworthy Chinese railway worker, who opines about how hard the work was for his people and isn’t a racist caricature otherwise; the book does ok there. But when he needs a disguise, Will wears brownface as an Exotic Indian with magic Orientalist spirit powers — awkward!
Class disparity is clearly a theme — immigrants, poorly paid and discarded railway workers, Will’s family’s rise from poverty to wealth, the extreme wealth of the rail baron. Will’s journey literally goes from first class to colonist class and back again through third and second classes. We’re supposed to sympathize with the poor, but anyone who talks about evening out that disparity is a villain. By the end, the unsubtle message is that if you’re poor but brave and honorable (Will’s father; Maren), it’ll all work out for you, and if you’re rich and have choices (Will), poverty is a grand adventure.
Bottom line: the 19th century North American West is full of opportunities to talk about social justice. If the book had entirely ignored them in favor of fun train battles, cool — not a great novel, but I wouldn’t have taken it to task for four paragraphs. But race and class are such obvious themes in the book and handled so poorly that I couldn’t ignore them. (Also, you know, if you don’t want overanalysis of race/gender/class/justice themes, you should maybe go looking in a different blog.)
Recommendations: I guess you could give this to someone who just can’t get enough of steampunk trains… or you could give them Airborn instead, or Leviathan, or Hugo Cabret or Wonderstruck, or Mrs. ReaderPants has a pretty good list. Or hell, Brian Floca’s Locomotive. Solidly middle grade (5th-7th).