As published in The Steampunk Chronicle on June 7, 2011.
Over the past several years the Steampunk movement has gained a great deal of momentum. With roots firmly planted in the works of classic authors such as Jules Verne, H.G. Wells and H.P. Lovecraft, and limited only by the confines of the imagination, its explosion onto the modern literary scene is no surprise. Unfortunately, a great deal of modern literature in this genre tends to be so overloaded with descriptors and intricate details the plot often becomes muddled or even lost. Very few authors seem able to tackle their work with the same lyrical precision as the classical greats and even fewer would make proper additions to young adult literature, let alone introductions to the genre.
Bethany Grenier’s debut novel Sings with Stars attempts to translate the author’s childhood experiences into the realm of a fantastical Steampunk-inspired world through the eyes of a teenage girl. Unlike other Steampunk literature, such as S.M. Peter’s White Chapel Gods, Sings with Stars has a softer and more appealing feel to it. Perhaps it’s Grenier’s feminine touch coming into play, but the story isn’t as heavy, dark or depressing. It promises a light and enjoyable read via a somewhat standard plot. The story is supposedly derived from the author’s own formative years spent living in the chaos of her mother’s mental illness and drug addiction. Though she chose not to reference specific experiences in the novel, she has used what she has taken from them to form the story.
The heroine, Gigi Storme, has been bounced from foster home to foster home throughout most of her life. She prays she is able to stay with her current foster parents until her high school graduation. The only constant in her young life is Mr. Whitley, the owner of Mr. Whitley’s Junk Emporium, where Gigi works. Gigi knows she is different from other girls. She’s not sure why and it’s not just the strange iridescent white marks that sprinkle her hairline. Gigi discovers the truth about herself and her origins shortly after she meets the mysterious inventor, Kenyon Smith.
Given the author’s background and the complexity of the genre, the reader enters the novel expecting intricate details coupled with strong character development. Unfortunately, there is not enough of either. The reader is given very little personal introspection by Gigi beyond the song lyrics stuck in her head and the general ponderings over her life and mysterious background. The character is left unintentionally two dimensional. Teenage hardships such as loneliness and bullying are called upon to flesh out the character, but are delivered through simplified narrative and generalized introspection whose affects would have been better achieved if actual scenes were played out. Though she is the protagonist, the lack of umph created through her simplistic development makes her difficult for the reader to identify with.
By far the most interesting and well developed character is Kenyon Smith, first known to Gigi as K.S. The author devotes an entire chapter early in the novel to Smith where she skillfully develops him as a fascinating and mysterious character. The reader is left wondering what Smith’s ties to Mr. Whitley are, why he has left the strange other realm, and what part he will play in Gigi’s coming of age. At the end of Smith’s chapter the reader is left with the strong desire to learn more about this inventor and the world from which he came.
Grenier chooses to set the novel’s tone by placing song lyrics and Tarot card illustrations featuring the characters at the beginning of each chapter. What continues is a reliance on illustrations throughout the novel to convey what an object, building, location or character looks like. The sparse use of textual description throughout the story hinders the reader from using their imagination to become truly absorbed in the novel and stunts the development of the heroine as a strong protagonist. When combined with the chapter heading song lyrics from popular genre bands, repeated use of the Wiccan form of the word “magic” (spelled “magick”), and references to Alchemy; the Tarot illustrations begin to appear more as gimmicks used to pander to the genre rather than actual aids to the story itself.
The illustrations in this novel are, however, very well drawn and range from black and white line drawings to vibrant watercolors. The Tarot cards at the head of each chapter draw upon the simple line style of a classic Tarot deck while nicely adapting to each character while being tied to the theme of each chapter. On their own they are a beautiful addition to the book’s layout and create a visual feel reminiscent of the Renaissance’s illuminated manuscripts.
Overall, Bethany Grenier’s debut novel was a nice deviation from the average Steampunk novel. Though lacking description and introspection, Sings with Stars succeeds where other novels in this genre have often not. The focus of the story is never lost amidst efforts to create another reality. The characters are seen using gadgets naturally rather than relying on them as a way of fitting into the Steampunk niche. Cleanly written and vibrantly illustrated, Sings with Stars would be an excellent addition to every Young Adult section as a coming-of-age introduction to the Steampunk genre.
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