The Plot: 1938. Sophie Hunter, sixteen, has fled Scotland for Denmark. Had she stayed in Scotland, she would have been forcibly brainwashed to become a perfect secretary for the “good of the country.” Denmark appears to be a safe harbor. She lives with her friend Mikael and his mother, assistant to Neils Bohr. Sophie waits to hear from the mysterious Alfred Nobel, who says he knows things about Sophie’s long dead parents. War is on the horizon, but the world Sophie finds herself in is not one of politics but that of science and the weapons that scientists make.
The Good: In case the “Alfred Nobel is alive in 1938” doesn’t give it away, (well, that and Scotland using brainwashed secretaries) this is an alternate world. Briefly, in this world, at the Battle of Waterloo (1815), Napoleon defeated Wellington and consequences include a European Foundation that invades England while Scotland joins the New Hanseatic League, which is made up of Scandinavian countries. Some history remains similar – a war is threatened. Germany has instituted racial laws. Science is similar, and with Bohr and other scientists around it is treated very seriously. Spiritualism is real, or at least, real for some. The “invisible things” are the stuff of both science (atoms and radiation) and spiritualism.
From dynamite to nitroglycerin to nuclear physicists – it’s real, with slightly altered timeframes. Real enough for those who are into science to get a thrill by the names that are dropped (Lise Meitner). Sophie, in conversations and internal musings, thinks about science, weapons, war, peace.
Sophie’s parents died in an explosion when she was a child, an event she barely survived and hardly remembers. She is about to find out secrets about them, about their past, about their work, about their connections to people Sophie is meeting for the first time. Meanwhile, her friendship with Mikael is slowly turning into something more.
Sophie’s new home and her safety is changed dramatically when war comes to Denmark. An attack leaves Mikael injured and his personality changed; the European Foundation invades Denmark; and a new character is introduced, Elsa Blix. For a second time, Sophie flees her home.
At this point, Invisible Things turns from a story of science, war, and peace to a retelling of The Snow Queen. Mikael is Kai, his injuries turning him cold and enthralling him to the Snow Queen/Elsa Blix; Sophie is Gerda, out to save her best friend.
Every time Sophie turns around, it seems, the world and her place in it is not what it seems. It’s not just being a refugee, first from Scotland, then from Denmark. It is realizing that everything she believed, about herself and her family, is not what it seems. Her world is full of invisible things, slowly being made visible.
Do you have to read The Explosionist to read Invisible Things? No. The Explosionist features the spiritualism that is (sometime) real in this world, so that part is mainly in Sophie’s past, when she refers to experiences in Scotland. But you know what I’m going to say — you’re going to WANT to read The Explosionist. You’re going to want to find out more about this alternate history. You’re going to enjoy Sophie and her adventures and want more.