Steampunk will never supplant some of the better known genres out there in the hearts and minds of children. Kids walk into my library every day asking for fantasy, mysteries, funny books, scary books, and what have you. They don’t tend to ask for science fiction unless it’s part of a school assignment, and if you ask them if they’d like some Steampunk they look at you like you’ve started speaking in tongues. The word means nothing to them (and very little to quite a few adults as well). Nonetheless, while a kid might not be able to identify what Steampunk is (Quickie Definition: Futuristic elements mixed with old-fashioned gears and clockwork) but once they find a book they love they’ll read it up, steam-powered ray guns or no. Steampunk is generally found in works for adults and teens, so Matthew Cody’s The Dead Gentleman is a rarity in its field. Part early 20th century orphan scamp material, part present day end-of-the-world epic, and part Land of the Lost (trust me), Cody’s book may not always entirely consistent but the characters are compelling, the settings fun, the storytelling’s upbeat action is hard to match.
Tommy was just your average everyday 20th century street kid and cutpurse at first. There is such a thing as trying to pick the pocket of the wrong guy, though. When a routine pocket grab ends up involving a well dressed, walking corpse, Tommy ends up stealing a mechanical bird and, inadvertently, saving the world. Seems he’s wrangled with a villain going by the name of The Dead Gentleman and in doing so ends up joining with an organization of explorers who travel all over the universe through space and time. When Tommy is trapped in a strange sunless world he manages to join forces with a present day girl named Jezebel. Together with the mechanical canary Merlin the three must try to defeat this singular villain before he conquers not just the earth but the universe as well.
Fans of Cody’s previous middle grade novel Powerless, a story of superhero kids and their disappearing powers, are aware that as an author Mr. Cody is pretty good at creating fantastical stories packed with action. Fight scenes, chase sequences, all that good stuff. In this book he gives himself a much wider world to play with than he did in his previous novel. The skies the limit when it comes to exploring different worlds and Cody has fun with that. Mind you, there’s a lot of death here. Not to the main characters, necessarily (well… not all of them), but in the interest of the plot a whole city pretty much gets wiped out in the course of the tale. FYI. This book is very much the first in a series but that doesn’t mean that this first novel doesn’t stand on its own. All the plotlines get wrapped up and the book doesn’t end with some cheap cliffhanger. You can see that there are more tales yet to be told but if this is the only book a kid gets their hands on, they won’t be disappointed.
Of course there’s such a thing as over enthusiasm. Cody is dead set on throwing every last cool element into this book that he can think of that as a reader you’re left feeling more than a little out of breath. So it is that you encounter in the course of this book a clockwork canary, time travel, monsters, a kraken, zombies, dinosaurs, zombie dinosaurs, multiple worlds, a near toothless vampire, interplanetary travel, and the Land of the Lost. At least it looks like The Land of the Lost. It’s underground, contains portals to other worlds, ape-like inhabitants, and dinosaurs. It also slows the novel down more than it should. Once it’s left behind, things pick up again. There’s also the mild problem that Cody has to use a bit of a plot contrivance to keep his characters in line. Routinely Tommy and Jezebel are trapped in a situation with the means of escape at their fingertips. Jezebel, you see, accidentally steps through time when she interferes with a Cycloidotrope. Tommy uses it to simply see into the future, and is told never to try to travel that way because it’s a million to one shot that you won’t be torn to pieces. A million to one shot if you’re a bad guy that is. Good guys use the warning to keep themselves in peril, but when the going gets tough they can apparently use it with impunity.
That said, it’s a great romp and the kind of book you can hand to a kid intent on action. I know that librarians are constantly on the lookout for “boy books”, which is to say books that don’t look pink and sparkly and might actually attract a reluctant male reader. The Dead Gentleman certainly fits the bill if that’s what you seek. And if you’re looking for something comparable to this you may be out of luck. The best you can probably hope for in the Steampunk middle grade genre is to read books like Matthew Kirby’s The Clockwork Three. Even then, you won’t find the same sheer conglomeration of beasties and epic battles at work here. There may be a couple hiccups along the way but for simple enjoyment don’t hesitate to pick this one up.
On shelves now.
Source: Final copy sent from author for review.
And here’s a fun trailer for the book.