It’s wartime in Nautilene, and Blue, on the run from rival newsboys, has stumbled into a secret lab inhabited by an absent-minded inventor. Blue’s part of a patchwork family held together by the mayor, who also runs the paper. The inventor takes on the irrepressible orphan as an apprentice.
The characters are cheery, expressive, and full of energy, very much in the “keep plugging through whatever comes next” vein. It’s as though the scrappy underdogs of 30s movies combined with the stiff-upper-lip fortitude of 40s Britain in a more cynical society, similar to our own.
There are a lot of elements packed into this book… a pet canary, Jack’s inventions, military conspiracy, another mysterious child who attracts birds and hates grown-ups, the question of how much what one does is constrained by gender expectations, a missing weapon, the conflict between family loyalty and job advancement, the nature of humanity, and the freedom of choice.
One looking for a straightforward story might find it overwhelming, but hungry young readers will find all the atmosphere and twists inspiring and imagination-firing. There are hints of another story to follow, which I’d welcome. I wanted to know more about all of it. I loved Xu’s ambition in creating such a nuanced work, with a more realistically downbeat ending than I expected, yet still hopeful.
The symbolism isn’t always subtle, but the desire for flight is classic. As a first published work, this is powerful stuff. I was particularly inspired by seeing a cartoonist tackle, even in passing, the role of a newspaper while a country (kingdom) is at war. This is, at times, a timely, wise book, as when a character says, “Even if you’re the best at what you do… people will ruin you if they don’t think you have any right doing it.” The threat of destruction of the different adds a melancholy undertone to the adventures that many can relate to.
The publisher provided an advance review copy and has posted preview pages.