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We All Live In A Coal-Powered Submarine

Alix reviews Cuttlefish by Dave Freer, a book set in an alternate universe where sea-levels have risen, London looks more like Venice, and illegal submarines run a pretty extensive black market.

We All Live In A Coal-Powered Submarine

BOOK REPORT for Cuttlefish by Dave Freer

Cover Story: A Little More Y Than A
BFF Charm: Yay!
Swoonworthy Scale: 6
Talky Talk: He Said, She Said
Bonus Factors: Underground Railroad, Waterworld, Science
Anti-bonus Factor: Racism
Relationship Status: Surprisingly Fun OkCupid Date

Cover Story: A Little More Y Than A

So I would not be caught dead with this book cover. BUT, technically I am not the target demographic here, and it does remind me of some historical fiction I would have read when I was 10 or so, so objectively, it’s not that bad. But it certainly won’t trick anyone into think you’re reading a grown-up book, so I would kindle it if I were you.

The Deal:

In an alternate universe where the ice caps have melted, major cities lie underwater, and the British Navy still rules the seas (and its empire), Clara Calland and her scientist mother are on the run from, well, everybody. Clara doesn’t know why, but every government in the world seems to be extremely interested in her secretive mother’s most recent and mysterious research, and suddenly they must leave Clara’s home in Ireland, escape a Russian airship, and eventually, be smuggled out of London on an illegal submarine, the titular Cuttlefish. Can they safely make it to America and find refuge? Will Clara’s mother ever open up to her and explain why they’re on the run, and what really happened to her father?

BFF Charm: Yay!

I wasn’t sure about Clara at first, but she grew on me pretty quickly once I understood where she was coming from. Clara has a bit of a Young Victoria complex, where growing up very pampered, sheltered, and babied, never told the whole truth by people around her, has made her frustrated and distrustful of others. As a result, she’s prone to act impulsively and with heroics that show her desperation to prove that she’s not a child. Clara just needs some positive older role models, a big sister type to keep her in check. I could be that big sister!

And Tim! I love you Timmy! Tim is a cabin boy on the submarine who grew up in flooded London’s underground tunnels, where food is scarce and black-market submarining seems like a stable career choice. Tim is kind and smart and brave, but also not afraid to show fear. He’s also very respectful of the ladies which is APPALLINGLY HARD TO FIND on this submarine. Clara needs to give some of these dudes a swift kick in the nuts. (But not Tim, because Tim is the best.)

Swoonworthy Scale: 6

Tim and Clara hate each other at first, and of course in fiction-land, that’s pretty much the most solid foundation for a relationship you can have. Things stay pretty tame, owing to the facts that 1) Timmy is so frustratingly respectful of the ladies and Clara has to make ALL the moves, 2) The Captain has expressly forbidden the two from getting handsy while on board (and they actually obey his orders, ugh. What kind of teenagers are you?), and 3) they’re on a coal-powered submarine for most of the book, so everyone probably smells abhorrent. I’m looking forward to the sequel, when things might get a little steamier (pun intended!).

Talky Talk: He Said, She Said

The perspective goes back and forth between Clara, Tim, and a Commodore Norrington type that’s pursuing them. For the first half of the book, I found this style to be really frustrating. I’m generally a pretty fast reader, but the narrative really slowed me down, especially when combined with all the world-building that was happening. Honestly, if I hadn’t had this review due today, I might have given up entirely.

BUT, if you’re struggling with getting into the book, as I was, I strongly suggest you push through, because once I got used to the setting and the different voices, I got really into the book and enjoyed both Clara and Tim’s perspectives. I could have done without Commodore Norrington, but I realize that would have caused problems for both foreshadowing and plot advancement.

Bonus Factor: Underground Railroad

The network of people and tunnels through which Clara and her mother are smuggled is pretty sweet. Dr. Calland’s connection to it all is never fully explained, but her mother--Clara’s grandmother--appears to have been some kind of Harriet Tubman type, which gets them an automatic in with the Underpeople of London. I hope this history is explored a little more in the sequel.

Bonus Factor: Waterworld

(Actually, I hate that movie. Like, loathe. But that’s neither here nor there.) The ice caps have melted and cities like London are underwater! And there’s this whole subculture of people living in the old Tube lines and train stations, running pumps to keep the water out and existing with the aid of a black market. Which is actually... super depressing... but still makes me feel kind of hopeful? Humans are SO resilient. I mean, yeah, the British Navy is still out there imperializing, but not with the aim of protecting or improving the lives of your average British citizen, which sucks, but even in the face of all the horrible, you have people still down there fighting not just for survival, but freedom and the ability to live a better life, even though many have never known anything different.

Also, London’s the new Venice, y’all! Anyone for a gondola ride?

Bonus Factor: Science

So let’s lay aside Dr. Calland’s questionable parenting practices for a second and talk about what a BAMF she is. Not only is she a second-generation female chemist in a world that clearly needs to sort out some gender issues, but she’s also quick on her feet and very good in a crisis. With her spontaneous smoke-bombs, tear gas, and secret projects of trying to solve world hunger, she is definitely on the short-list for my zombie apocalypse colony.

Anti-bonus Factor: Racism

So Tim is half-black, and surprise surprise, like half the crew of Cuttlefish are bigotted a-holes. The book deals with it well, but that doesn’t mean I didn’t feel ALL THE RAGE while reading it. So prepare yourselves.

Casting Call:

Saoirse Ronan as Clara

Obviously.

Alfie Enoch as Tim

Also Obviously. Easiest casting ever.

Relationship Status: Surprisingly Fun OkCupid Date

This book is not my usual type, but I was looking for something new when it found me on the internet. And I’ll be honest, when I met it for dinner, my first thought was ABORT! ABORT! I knew going in that it was into steampunk and such, but I was unprepared for that reality. I mean, that’s cool and all, but also not really my thing as it turns out. The first half of our date was kind of rough--I was just not picking up what this book was putting down. But then, something just clicked! Instead of being awkward and rambly, the book was kind of cool and interesting? And I became totally engrossed in what it was saying! We’ve already got a second date lined up.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Prometheus Books. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). Cuttlefish is available now.

Alix West's photo About the Author: Alix is a writer and illustrator who spends way too much time reading Jane Austen retellings of varying quality.
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