Fiction Review: Cuttlefish

Publisher: Pyr 2012
Reviewed by Nimue Brown, assisted by James

CuttlefishThis is a particularly intriguing alternate history novel that does not have an immediately obvious point of departure from actual history. Helpfully, author Dave Freer includes an author note at the end explaining the little, human change that gives him a flooded and steampowered reality with a lingering British Empire and subversive heroes. His choice of when to branch off (I’m not saying what, it would be a spoiler) is fascinating all by itself.

The world building is exquisitely handled; developed through action and storytelling in a way that will really pull you in. The page turner of a plot has smaller, character-driven narratives underpinned by a much bigger and more political storyline. Younger readers may not pick up on all these details and may not know enough history to fully get the setup, as was the case with my co-reviewer, but this is no barrier to really enjoying the book. As with the Harry Potter books, it’s the background with its politics and adult themes, just visible behind the young protagonists, that will fascinate the older reader.

Characters in this story are engaging and plausible, and the same can be said of the science. Author notes clarify the technical aspects and reveal the one small ‘cheat’ in the mix. People who like solid science in their Steampunk worlds, and who want to know how it all works, will no doubt enjoy this aspect, but for those who are more concerned with fiction than fact, I should add that it doesn’t intrude on the flow of the story at all.

My ten year old co-reviewer did not want to put the book down, describing it in the following terms… “amazing…surprising… well written…wow…mad in a good way…completely unexpected.” I’d suggest this is an excellent buy for YA readers generally, and especially younger Steampunks. Cuttlefish should engage YA readers of both genders, and the grownups are going to want to read it too.

With a world flooded by elevated sea levels, Cuttlefish is set up to make comment on our own environmental issues. That historical ‘what if?’ is also a potential future what if?’ Many of the political aspects have real world relevance too – issues of power, authority, use of resources and more. These give the book considerable depth. However, the dramatic plot lines and colourful settings mean that none of the content gets preachy or clunky. The balance of meaning and play, enjoyment and intellectual interest, is about as perfect as anyone could hope it to be. Highly recommended.

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