Book Review: Rebel Mechanics by Shanna Swensdon
A sixteen-year-old governess becomes a spy in this alternative U.S. history where the British control with magic and the colonists rebel by inventing.
It’s 1888, and sixteen-year-old Verity Newton lands a job in New York as a governess to a wealthy leading family—but she quickly learns that the family has big secrets. Magisters have always ruled the colonies, but now an underground society of mechanics and engineers are developing non-magical sources of power via steam engines that they hope will help them gain freedom from British rule. The family Verity works for is magister—but it seems like the children’s young guardian uncle is sympathetic to the rebel cause. As Verity falls for a charming rebel inventor and agrees to become a spy, she also becomes more and more enmeshed in the magister family’s life. She soon realizes she’s uniquely positioned to advance the cause—but to do so, she’ll have to reveal her own dangerous secret.
Rebel Mechanics is a fun steampunk novel that features magic, awesome inventions, and has just the right amount of swoon. Set in an alternate history version of the early U.S., a group of rebel mechanics are trying to start a revolution to tip the balance of power and income inequality that is held by the magisters (the people with magic in this world). The rebel mechanics believe that if they can create their own machines to provide things like light and locomotion, then the balance of power will be tipped in their favor as they will no longer have to rely on the magic of the magisters.
On her first day in the big city, Verity stumbles into a group of rebel mechanics and is drawn into their cause. She becomes a valuable asset when she is hired as a governess to one of the most powerful magister families in the city. At first somewhat naive, she has no idea for example how both groups of people feel about children born of a commoner and magister couple (what we would call a mudblood in the Harry Potter verse), Verity quickly comes to understand the righteousness of their cause. She also doesn’t understand at first how high the stakes really are, but as she is drawn into the ongoing battle she is forced to make a variety of personal decisions that may have long lasting implications.
Part of the fun of steampunk is seeing the different contraptions that are built, and that is done in a fun way here with underground competitions and journeys through the night sky on the steampunk version of a magic carpet. In fact, author Shanna Swendson recently said that she kept singing the Aladdin song A Whole New World while writing this scene and it will surprise no one who reads it.
When reading alternate history tales, it’s fascinating to see the various ways in which the author chooses to tweak a familiar narrative. For me, the author includes some fun steampunk elements, a couple of interesting twists on Colonial American history, and adds in some compelling characters. I’m not going to lie, I am a big fan of Verity. She is naive and slightly overwhelmed in this new place, but she is never meek or trembling with fear. She is, in some ways, reminiscent of Anne Shirley, one of my favorite characters of all times.
The only thing I struggled with while reading Rebel Mechanics is the concept of time. The first 60 or so pages involve Verity’s first day in the city. A lot of stuff happens in that first day, so much stuff that I wondered if it all could in fact happen in just one day. In fact, later in the book, when I realized that all this had happened in just a course of a few days, I wondered if I was misreading the timeline in some way. The concept of time just seemed too compacted to me as a reader, with too much happening and too many feelings/ideas being developed in what seemed like an unrealistically short amount of time.
Overall, I really liked this book. It features a strong female main character who is intelligent, driven, and takes big personal risks because it is the right thing to do in her opinion. This steampunk/alternate history version of the early U.S. is fascinating and engaging. And if you have a book discussion group, there are a lot of fun activities you can do while discussing this book. From the simple, tying a gear to a red ribbon, to the more complex, creating a Rube Golberg machine, there is no shortage of fun to be had.
Definitely recommended. I look forward to reading more about Verity and the Rebel Mechanics.
About Karen Jensen, MLS
Karen Jensen has been a Teen Services Librarian for almost 30 years. She created TLT in 2011 and is the co-editor of The Whole Library Handbook: Teen Services with Heather Booth (ALA Editions, 2014).
SLJ Blog Network