On a class trip to view the workings of the vast machine that now keeps what’s left of the human race alive inside a huge complex, safe from the frigid temperatures outside, Sol Wheat’s life is turned upside down. First he witnesses a major accident. Was it sabotage? When he returns home his father is missing and Sol suddenly finds himself the target of the Clockworkers, a secret organization that will stop at nothing to ensure that the Machine remains safe. Before he knows it Sol and his estranged friend Cleo are on the run, dodging bullets while trying desperately to figure out who is behind the Clockworkers.
I read this book in part because it sounded interesting, in part because the review compared it to Phillip Reeve, and in part because an article in the Horn Book mentioned the author as being one of the few who writes for teens with an optimistic viewpoint. I was somewhat disappointed. While the plot was interesting, it did not grab me the way that the Hungry City books did. I had a hard time connecting with the characters, particularly when they were so obviously plot-driven. For instance, a major turning point for Cleo is her realization that while she’s enjoyed posing as a rebel, when push comes to shove she’s all talk. She tries to change that. Yet by the end of the book Cleo is back exactly where she started: smoking stem and playing in a band, as if her experiences and worldview changes mean nothing now that things are back to “normal”.
Perhaps it was simply this book, since I have not read others by the author, but I also don’t understand why the Horn Book essayist held this author up as someone who promotes optimistic worldviews (SPOILERS follow). The idea that the world is utterly destroyed except for the extremely corrupt society left in the Machine is depressing and generally disempowering: at the end of the book the characters essentially engage in behavior that they believe will result in the death of everyone in the city simply from a sense of outrage at the injustice of it all. Er, mass suicide is the answer to injustice? (And I’m still unsure why the Machine didn’t break permanently. One character specifically states that he is worried because the mechanism to jump start the electrical system has been dismantled, thus implying that to simply start running power through it would not be enough. Other characters in a position to understand how the Machine works are terrified when the power goes out and the Machine stops running. That a simple resurgence of electricity could start the machine running again appear to surprise everyone, but is a surprise that is taken completely in stride and never really explained.)
If you enjoy stories where there is a lot of action, subterfuge, and intrigue, then this book will appeal. The plot holes and dangling plot threads can be ignored if you just want a quick adventure story. For more intense and carefully realized de-evolved future, pick up a copy of Philip Reeve’s Hungry City series.