Every so often I like to treat myself to a really smart children's or young adult novel. Last week it was Jenny Davidson's The Explosionist, an alternate history set in 1930s Scotland I got excited about before it was published, and then I forgot about it because the pub date was still so many months away.
Fifteen-year-old Sophie lives with her great-aunt Tabitha in an alternate version of Edinburgh in the late 1930s; Tabitha is rich, politically connected, and hosts seances in their dining room on a weekly basis (which in this reality isn't as eccentric as it sounds). The world is on the brink of war and Sophie and her aunt are both trying to figure out which organization is behind the city's frequent suicide bombings; Sophie has a big crush on her awkward young chemistry teacher, but fears he may be involved. Just as troubling is the prospect of her own life after boarding school; Sophie wants to study science at the university, but with war on the horizon she may be forced into the Institute for the Recruitment of Young Ladies for National Security (the acronym is pronounced "irons"—which, needless to say, is no coincidence).
The overarching premise is that Napoleon won the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and consequently the early 20th century is only vaguely recognizable. The United States is split in two (since Delaware, which had most of the munitions factories, sided with the South), and Europe is also divided—between the independent (mostly northern) nations of the Hanseatic League, and the Fascist state that has already gobbled up France, Germany, and all the rest. England lost the Great War, and is now reduced to mass starvation and barbed-wire borders; an independent Scotland has taken its place as a world power. This alternate political reality is really interesting 'what-if' food for thought, although the frequent historical-figure switcheroos (Oscar Wilde as an obstetrician who invented the incubator?!) are pretty distracting. But that's my only real quibble with the novel—there's no mystery as to who's behind the terrorist attacks, but because Davidson is more interested in exploring this alternate reality than in a traditional whodunit, this wasn't an issue for me.
This is a pretty intense read, and I don't think I'd give it to anybody under the age of fourteen. The glimpses of an Orwellian women's secretarial training academy were downright horrifying, as was the prospect of suicide machines that look like telephone booths available in the lobby of every post office and library in the country.
The ending isn't so much an ending as a 'this is now 450 pages long so we'll save the rest of it for next time,' which is a little frustrating because the sequel (The Snow Queen) won't be out until fall 2010. Looking forward to it!