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The Little Engine That Could

Alix reviews Dave Freer's The Steam Mole, the sequel to Cuttlefish. (This time with 100% more steampunk Australia!)

The Little Engine That Could

BOOK REPORT for The Steam Mole by Dave Freer

Cover Story: Electric Boogaloo
BFF Charm: Make It Rain
Swoonworthy Scale: 7.5
Talky Talk: Action Packed, with a Touch of Mockingjay Syndrome
Bonus Factors: Alternative History, Paul Revere
Anti-Bonus Factor: Racism
Relationship Status: Going Steady

Cover Story: Electric Boogaloo

I feel the same way about this cover as I did about the one for its predecessor, Cuttlefish. Totally mortifying for me? Yes. For someone actually in the target demographic? Completely appropriately! Although, now that I’ve mentally cast Clara and Tim as Saoirse Ronan and Alfie Enoch, respectively, I disapprove of these models. I demand Saoirse and Alfie!

The Deal:

Following the events of Cuttlefish, Clara, her mother, and their submariner escorts have made it to the independent land of Westralia. Unfortunately, Clara is soon separated from her boyfriend, Tim, when the crew of the Cuttlefish are shipped off to different mining jobs to pay for the sub repairs. While Clara is left in the care of some posh Westralians, Tim has gotten stuck working on a steam mole, a coal-powered drill that digs tunnels underneath the Westralian desert for transportation and sun protection. Meanwhile, Clara’s father, Jack, has been transferred to a British prison in Queensland in an effort to lure Clara and her mother out of the Westralian woodwork and into the arms of the Imperial Army.

But when Clara’s mother is suddenly hospitalized for a rare tropical disease, Clara doesn’t know what to do. Afraid of being an orphan, she strikes out to find her father and break him out of prison, but not before she first finds Tim.

BFF Charm: Make it Rain

Clara and Tim are obviously still my faves, but I’d like to extend some BFF charms to some new characters, too.

To begin with, Clara’s dad Jack is AMAZING. He’s like every action hero plus every western hero tied into one. Kind of like Bruce Willis in Die Hard? Except less willing to kill people. Regardless, he does not mess around. Yippie ki yay, motherfucker.

Jack’s prison break partner is a kid named Lampy, a half-aboriginal teen who accidentally killed his drunk, caucasian father trying to protect his ungrateful step-mother from him. Lampy is the best! He’s not only the first person I’m looking up when I need to survive the Australian Outback, but from a slightly less self-interested standpoint, he is also the sweetest kid ever. But like most of the indigenous Australians in this book, he has a pretty dim view of westerners, owing to the fact that in his experience, they are a bunch of racist dicks with a pretty skewed sense of justice. I just want to grab Lampy in a big bear hug and tell him that not everyone on the planet is a terrible person, and that he needs to stop blaming himself for absolutely everything bad that has happened in his life. Luckily, Jack basically says all those things for me. (But I still want to give Lampy a hug.)

Next on my BFF list is Linda, the teenage daughter of the Westralian family that takes in Clara. I wasn’t sure about Linda at first because in a lot of ways, she’s the foil to Clara’s headstrong impulsivity, all prim and proper. But pretty quickly, Linda learns from Clara and her mother, shedding her reserved, decorous exoskeleton for more feminist pursuits like chemistry or having opinions. By the end of the book, I think I love her even more than Clara. While Clara was born impetuous and foolhardy enough to ignore societal expectations, Linda has to learn to overcome them in spite of herself.

And lastly, I have to give a BFF charm to Linda’s dad, for being not just supportive, but PROUD of his daughter in her new, unladylike hobbies and recognizing that she can, and should, amount to more in life than a simple trophy wife.

Swoonworthy Scale: 7.5

It’s hard to keep up a swoon rating for story where they characters have already gotten together at the end of the last book. Conveniently, Freer has placed a vast desert and a bunch of racist assholes in between our two lovers--sufficient to keep the romantic tension high. That is why I upped the swoon score in this book, even though nothing too sexy happens. If Clara wandering around the barren Westralian desert searching for Tim doesn’t make you swoon, then you are probably a camel.

Talky Talk: Action Packed with a Touch of Mockingjay Syndrome

After already being acclimated to this universe from Cuttlefish, I found it much easier to jump into The Steam Mole. This is good, because Freer wastes no time raising the stakes. The narration bounces around more than in Cuttlefish, adding Linda, Lampy, and Jack’s voices into the mix, but instead of being distracting, I found that it just added suspense this time.

My one complaint is that the ending felt kind of rushed and anticlimactic. I actually had to reread the Big Finale, because I hadn’t realized it was the Big Finale at the time, and suddenly everything was resolved and I couldn’t figure out how. After all that page-turning build up, I kind of expected more.

Bonus Factor: Alternative History

So, because I’m bad at my job, I didn’t read up on the backstory for the alternate timeline when I reviewed Cuttlefish. But actually, it’s super duper crazy! It all starts with our Clara’s grandmother, Clara Immerwahr, getting in a fight with her betrothed, Fritz Haber, and calling off her engagement. As a result, neither of them worked on the synthesis of ammonia, and the course of wars, population, climate, and history in total was changed forever, creating this steampunk alternate timeline that sets the backdrop of the story. Super cool--and also sad, considering that in this fictional timeline, Immerwahr got married to someone else in Cambridge, where she had a fulfilling family and work life, whereas in our real timeline, she had a super unhappy marriage and shot herself in 1915.

Bonus Factor: Paul Revere

The fun thing about this universe is that the British are still the bad guys! I should perhaps be less enthused by this, being that I live in Britain*, but as 50/50 Irish/American, it is clearly my patriotic duty pump my fist in victory at the Paul Revere moment in this book. TAKE THAT, REDCOATS!

*To be fair, Scotland barely counts.

Anti-Bonus Factor: Racism

Hey, remember how we all learned a lesson about racism in the last book, and if we didn’t, we got kicked off the Cuttlefish crew for our incorrigible stupidity? Well, welcome to Westralia, where almost all the white people are MORE terrible than those small-pond jerks! So much so that almost all the non-white people have taken blanket-disliking the white people, too! Awesome, have fun fixing an entire country this time, Clara and Tim.

Casting Call:

I stand by my previous casting choices, but I’d like to add:

Xenia Goodwin as Linda

She’s my go-to girl for teenage Aussie idiots who become surprisingly awesome.

Liam Fucking Neeson as Jack Calland

Watch out, because he will EFF YOU UP, REDCOATS!

Brandon Walters as Lampy

I have not seen Australia, so I have no idea if this kid can act, but he is a) indigenous Australian, b) 16, and c) OMG HE CUDDLES WOMBATS IN HIS SPARE TIME YES A THOUSAND TIMES YES.

Relationship Status: Going Steady

After meeting Cuttlefish on an internet dating site and having a surprisingly good time, I had high hopes for this second date. And this book did not disappoint! It’s still weirdly obsessed with global warming and fertilizer, but you know what? I’m kind of into that too.

FTC Full Disclosure: I received my review copy from Prometheus Books. I received neither money nor cocktails for writing this review (dammit!). The Steam Mole 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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