Rebel MechanicsI found today’s title while searching for reading material for an upcoming book club gathering.  Book clubs offer an excuse to read for fun and so much more.  They are a great way to explore new reading territory and to add titles to your “To Be Read” stack.  Lists of suggested titles for book clubs are fantastic resources and easily found online or with the help of a librarian.

Rebel Mechanics: All is Fair in Love and Revolution by Shanna Swendson was a serendipitous find for me.  It has been a fun trip into alternative history, a fiction type which has been around for a long time but hasn’t shown up on my reading list that often.  Collins English Dictionary defines alternative history as “a genre of fiction in which the author speculates on how the course of history might have been altered if a particular historical event had had a different outcome”.  Many times alternative (or alternate) histories use a military history starting point—What if the Axis had won World War II?  What if the British had won the American Revolution?—and build the story around that.  Some alternative histories use pivotal historical events not tied to warfare as their foundations—What if Lincoln had not been assassinated?  What if the dinosaurs had not died out?

In Rebel Mechanics, Swendson imagines a different beginning to the U.S.; the back of the book jacket says it best, “What if British magic kept the American Revolution from ever occurring?”  The story takes place in 1888 New York City, a bustling metropolis where society is divided along class, economic, and magical lines as it is everywhere in the British colonies.  The British landed gentry possess magical powers and use them for economic prosperity and technological advancement which are denied everyone else.  Yet, revolution is afoot!  Masked bandits operate Robin Hood-style, stealing secret information and ill-gotten gains from the government in support of an underground resistance.  The resistance, known as the Rebel Mechanics, develops steam-powered technology to provide an alternative to magical oppression and to highlight the injustices of the gentry (dubbed magisters).

Enter Verity Newton, a seventeen-year-old daughter of a college professor embarking on a new life in the big city.  After an adventure-filled start to her tale (Train robbery!  Wild bus ride!  Police chase!), she is hired as a governess in one of the most powerful magister families in the colonies.  As she navigates the rarified world of the nobility and gets to know her charges, Verity makes friends with a lively group of non-magisters including Lizzie the firebrand and handsome science student Alec.  All is not as it seems, though.  Why do her new-found friends seem to turn up at just the right place and time?  Is her employer, entomologist Lord Henry Lyndon, really tracking beetles when he leaves the house?  Why does he return bruised and bloodied?  What goes on beneath the streets of New York?  Secrets abound!  Intrigue and danger lurk around the corner!

Shanna Swendson packs a lot into her book.  Rebel Mechanics is a treasure chest of action, adventure, espionage, magic, romance, politics, self-discovery, betrayal, science, class commentary, and steampunk atmosphere—and that’s the first half.  It’s a rollicking ride through Verity’s expanding world and the city’s expanding consciousness.  Swendson creates believable, interesting characters and places them in equally interesting situations.  She shows us New York from Verity’s point of view, and it’s easy to get caught up in the character’s feelings and interior monologue.  The author drives the plot with plenty of action yet includes enough reflection to develop her characters.  She sets the steampunk scene with descriptions of 1880s technology, sights, and sounds.  Sometimes I found myself wanting a bit more polish on the story—there’s a lot packed into it and in a handful of places she could have done a little bit more with what she had instead of squeezing in more.  All in all, Rebel Mechanics is a fun, light book—perfect for a study break or holiday binge reading.  Give this one to middle schoolers and high schoolers interested in steampunk settings, adventure stories, or gentle reads with chaste romance.

I can’t wait to chat about Rebel Mechanics at the next Teen Book Club gathering—Thursday, December 7, from 6:00-7:00 pm at the library.  Participants read a title of their choice based on the month’s theme; at the meeting, the group chats about their books then picks a theme for the next month.  Teens are welcome to bring a brown bag supper, if they like; the library supplies beverage and dessert.  This month we’re reading alternative history and serving hot chocolate with holiday treats.  Teen Book Club is free, open to grades 6-12; no registration necessary.  Questions about Teen Book Club or other library services for teens?  Call me at the library’s Teen Department, (417) 623-7953, extension 1027.  Happy reading!

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