Lumière by Jacqueline Garlick
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Book #71 for 2017 was this gem I’d overlooked on previous trawls through Calibre to select which book I’d read next. I’d have to check Calibre later to check my tags, but I’m pretty sure I got this book from one of the Storybundles – maybe Steampunk or maybe Alternate History. Either one works given what we learn of the world throughout the book. This is a long-winded way of saying that I didn’t choose this book on its own merits, I own it because it was part of a bundle I found interesting.
I’m no Steampunk know-it-all, I’m just a fan of the genre. But what I like about Lumière is that the steampunk elements are window dressing rather than the main focus. Compare it to the difference between a movie with 3D as a gimmick vs using 3D as an element of the storytelling or simply to add depth. Lumière is an example of the latter. Yes, there is an inexplicable device at the center of this plot, but it’s neither a MacGuffin nor does it dominate the story. Outside of that, there are a few devices used here and there, but it’s mostly a Victorian society with some tech that straddles steampunk and magic. It’s almost Urban Steampunk Fantasy if things aren’t being called magic by unreliable narrators.
So, if it’s not a story for tech’s sake or a caper (as many steampunk novels seem to be), what is it? Well, it’s mostly a character study with hints of romanticism and also using the Victorian setting to comment on both feminism and superstition. Let’s take these one at a time, even if this review is going to end up getting a bit rambly.
While I love the things Ms. Garlick does differently than most Steampunk novels, I also enjoy one thing she does that seems to be a staple of steampunk – have a female protagonist. (Well, to be accurate, somewhere around the midpoint it becomes a multiple point of view novel in which one of the POVs is a male) I don’t know why this segment of SF ends up so female-centric vs traditional SF, but I think it’s a good thing. We need more females – especially written by women. There is a different tone to things – thought processes, gaze (as in male gaze or female gaze), pacing, and of course the way love/sex/attraction is treated. Of course, men can succeed at this and women can succeed at the exact opposite, but there’s just something about writing what you know that tends to work out better. And, as a male-bodied person, it’s always refreshing for me to see things from a different point of view. And I could be completely speaking out of turn, but I think it’s this female-writer influence that strongly affected the way the one bit of female/female conflict plays out.
Sticking with Eyelet, our main character, I also enjoyed a rising trend I’ve noticed in indie SF and fantasy – including a protagonist who isn’t neurotypical. I’ve noticed a lot more autistic or spectrum heroes recently. Eyelet isn’t autistic, but she does suffer from seizures. Of course, in a Victorian society women are more vulnerable than now (although with all the news recently you wonder, don’t you?) because they are legally second-class citizens. Eyelet, as brilliant women have done in the real world, struggles against this and the view of women as too weak for strenuous work and thought and then has to deal with something that seems to prove she’s too weak that she has no control over. Additionally, it obviously puts her at greater bodily harm risk both sexually (which I don’t remember being in this book – again probably because it’s not written by a guy) but also from passing out at the wrong time – which is something she deals with as the plot needs. Of course, it’s also worse for her as Ms. Garlick explores the issues with science giving way to superstition and a somewhat accurate explanation of what we used to do to people who had disabilities even if they were disabilities that allowed them to function well in society most of the time. Victorians through to the modern period finding people deathly afraid of shame.
As a character study based on POV chapters, most of Eyelet and Ulrick’s (the guy) growth comes from the fact that they had imperfect knowledge surrounding their circumstances. So they force each other to grow as they literally take each other out of their figurative cocoons. (Eyelet from her city and Ulrick from his fortress-home) Ulrick had two paths available to him as a disfigured outcast – to become the most macho-est of machos or withdrawn. Ms. Garlick goes with withdrawn. This leads to fun moments as Ms. Garlick plays with the trope of “OH MY GOD YOU SHOWED AN ANKLE!” that makes fun of our nudity taboos by pointing out how strict they were back then. That they are both outcasts makes the subplot between them a fun bit of tension that you can see somewhat reflected in my status updates rather than a boring cliche. Speaking of breaking cliches, I love that (view spoiler)[Ms. Garlick allows them to have a scene where they consent to having sex while having it almost immediately interrupted before they can do more than cop a quick feel. First of all, the beginning of the scene where they fumble into getting consent rather than just go for the “we just got through a stressful time, let’s bone” was so sweet to read. These two introverts coming out of their shells for each other. Each having thought themselves unworthy of love, let alone carnal pleasure. Second, it’s just fun to upend things. (hide spoiler)]
The growth of the main characters was great as well as necessary. Because the one and only complaint I have is that the book doesn’t end the plot. Yes, something major happens, but it’s not like The Matrix (first movie) or The Hunger Games that tells a complete story. Yes, there’s more to be done – hence the trilogies – but you could read the first book, stop, and be happy. This book 100% ends with a wink at the audience (ALMOST literally) that the characters will be back. I know, I know – we haven’t gone 100% digital yet so books have to be a certain length to fit in people’s hands. But I think a trilogy should expand on an already completed story, not exist simply because it would be absurd to have a 1000 page book. (Tell that to GRRM) Anyway, my gripe is over. It was a great story of character growth and that was good enough.
Anyway, there’s a lot left unexplored at the end. If you’ve read my reviews before, you know that’s not enough by itself to guarantee I’ll come back. I won’t DNF a book because I have to see how the book ends, but I feel no such compulsion against series. When it comes to The Illumination Paradox ……. I CAN’T WAIT TO READ THE NEXT TWO. I’ll have to wait because I have a long TBR list, but I have added the books to my to read list and will probably be getting to them in a few months. (Unless the Winds of Winter comes out)
I’m probably forgetting some stuff I wanted to comment on, but that’s what the comments section of Goodreads (and my blog when this ends up there) are for.