“By Great Conductor’s steam-driven testicles!”
(Full disclosure: I received a free e-copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Member Giveaways program. Also, trigger warning for rape. I summarize some of the plot points below, but try to avoid any major spoilers.)
Set in London in 1820 and 1830, The Sunken imagines an alternate history in which dragons thrive in the swamps surrounding London; King George III is a vampire/cannibal/madman; and traditional, god-fearing religions have been abolished in favor of those that worship science. In this new old England, engineers, physicians, scholars, artists, and poets lead their own churches and sects, sermonizing on their latest theories and inventions.
The Sunken follows four childhood friends in boyhood (in 1820, they are fifteen years of age and on the cusp of going their separate ways) and adulthood (in 1830, they reunite in a London destined for radical change). The son of a Lord, Nicholas Rose is about to depart with the Royal Navy on a post bought and paid for by his cruel father – as is his adventure-seeking comrade, James Holman. Meanwhile, Isambard Kingdom Brunel is to continue studying engineering under the tutelage of his father Marc. Ditto: Henry Williams, who – as the descendant of the great dragon hunter Aaron Williams Senior – occupies one of the top social rungs among the lowly Stokers, the laborers who keep the great machines under London running. The day before Nicholas and James are to set sail, there’s an accident in Marc’s school which claims the life of Henry; Marc is tried for negligence and banished to Van Diem’s Land, leaving Isambard in the care of his abusive mother.
In the intervening years, Isambard befriends another Williams brother, Aaron; the two quickly bond over their grief, as well as their love of machines. Though Stokers are prohibited from innovating, they spend years perfecting a new locomotive in secret. Meanwhile, poor James has contracted a mysterious illness while abroad that eventually claims his sight; upon his return to London, he takes up residence with the Naval Knights of Windsor, a group of veterans all of who are a good forty years his senior. And Nicholas, now a lieutenant, draws the ire of a superior officer, whom he’s eventually forced to kill in self-defense. Rose goes on the run, eventually finding “rescue” – of a sort – in a secret underground religious community in Spain. He’s forced to flee yet again when he falls in love with the sadistic leader’s wife/slave, finally finding illegal passage back to England.
Now the year is 1830, and the friends reunite at a pivotal time in alt. London’s history.
Though England’s dragons had been hunted to extinction years before, it seems they’re making a comeback – as evidenced by the increasing number of attacks within city limits. King George III – the so-called Vampire King – hosts a contest, open to all engineers, to find a way of deterring these destructive pests. Against all odds – as a Stoker, he’s not allowed to claim the title of engineer, let alone enter the contest – Isambard’s plan to build a giant Wall around London prevails, thus making him the first-ever Stoker Pesbyter.
While the other Stokers (derisively referred to as “the Dirty Folk”) celebrate this triumph in their ongoing class war with the rest of England, Isambard’s friends begin to suspect that not all is as it seems. With the King’s grasp on sanity becoming more tenuous by the day – and Isambard’s ambitions seeming to outweigh his concern for fellow Stokers – Aaron in particular worries that the Wall’s ultimate purpose might be more nefarious than any of them realize.
Based on both the description and the many glowing reviews on Amazon and Goodreads, I really thought I’d love this book. Dragons, vampires, cannibals, robots, alternate history, steampunk, and scifi – I love all of these things! Alas, The Sunken didn’t quite do it for me.
This is a story rich in detail and world-building. Which should be a positive, but oftentimes I felt like it was a little too rich: difficult to see the forest for the trees. Some points are repeated time and again (e.g., the intricacy of the servant’s tunnels in the King’s castle; it reminded me of how important details are reiterated across various books in a series, only here it’s done mere pages apart) while other, more important details come in dribs and drabs, left for the reader to piece together. Which is nothing to sniff at in a 520 page book. (According to Goodreads, anyway. I’m convinced that Amazon’s listing, which puts it at 378 pages, must be incorrect.)
In particular, I had trouble figuring out how the various churches and classes related to one another, and the ways in which religion mitigated the effect of class. For example, at Isambard’s sermon in the epilogue, Green takes care to note how the Stokers are relegated to “observing” (scare quotes because they can’t actually see any of the action) from a third-class area outside of the church: “a corral of high fences set up especially to keep the Stokers away from the populace of London, as though they carried some kind of disease.” Yet a Stoker priest is allowed not just in the church itself, but near the pulpit. How does that work, exactly?
There are also a ton of characters to keep track of, which Green makes more confusing by alternately referring to some of them by their first name, last name, alias, and title. Twenty percent into the book, I was cursing myself for not taking pen and paper notes. I fear that this sense of distraction kept me from becoming fully immersed in the story, especially early on.
Aside from James, none of the main characters are particularly likable – which becomes problematic as the friends split into two opposing camps, one of which I assume we’re supposed to root for. Aaron is a mean drunk who abuses his wife (including rape: “His advances which had once been tender, were now fuelled by a kind of inner fury that made her dread their nights together.” Let me be clear: THIS. IS. RAPE.), and Nicholas seems bull-headedly clueless (and, worse yet, uncharacteristically so) regarding Isambard, a childhood friend he hasn’t seen for a decade.
The first half of the book is mostly absent female characters and, once they are introduced, they’re primarily maids, victims, and/or love interests. Brigitte is plucky enough, but is often also hysterical (I’ve never in my life seen a woman scream this much), and Nicholas constantly sidelines her. Plus her victim-blaming of Nicholas’s first love, Julianne, didn’t sit well with me. After being sold into sexual slavery by her father and repeatedly gang-raped by her “husband” and his acolytes, falling in love and attempting escape with Nicholas, ultimately facing a lifetime of servitude to a sadist, Julianne begs Nicholas to kill her. Brigitte blames her – rather than her misogynist murderer of a husband – for what comes next. No. Just no.
On the positive side, I absolutely loved Nicholas and Aaron’s ability to hear – and sometimes influence – the voices of animals inside their heads. This opened the door for a number of animal-friendly passages, such as when Aaron visited a menagerie in Regents Park: “The sadness of the animals, trapped in tiny cages with little food, dying slowly in a land far from their home, drew me in.” In his excitement, young Aaron unwittingly caused a revolt among the animals, which culminated in their deaths – but not before they broke free of their chains and “tore their cruel master to pieces.” No doubt he’d be equally appalled by modern zoos, factory farms, research labs, and other industries of animal exploitation.
What with the phantom voices haunting Nicholas’s head, this is a plot that promises to play out in future books in the series. (Pretty sure it’s the Boilers, yo.)
Anyway, I’ll probably skip the sequel, unless it’s a hundred pages shorter. Green’s writing is actually pretty good – I get a little nervous when I see Createspace listed as the pub – but The Sunken is professionally written and edited. It just needs a bit of a fast.
Comments (May contain spoilers!)
Diversity: None that I recall.
Animal-friendly elements: Yes! See review for details.