Monday, March 20, 2017

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell

 Reviewed by Ambrea

Nicolette is an inventor.  As daughter to one of the finest automaton creators in the empire, she has learned much about engineering and mechanical repair.  She’s primed to follow in her mother’s footsteps; however, when her mother succumbs to a terrifying disease and her father remarries only months later, Nicolette finds her world turned upside-down.  With her father gone, she finds herself abandoned and alone, caught on the receiving end of her stepmother’s frigid personality and her stepsisters’ vindictive ire.

Forced to become a servant in her own home, Nicolette has spent years under her stepmother’s thumb.  But on her sixteenth birthday, she discovers her mother’s hidden workshop deep in the cellar and she begins to dream that she could create a life for herself—away from the dreaded Steps (her dreaded stepfamily), away from the hardship and grime of her current existence.  As she prowls through her mother’s workshop, she discovers books and tools she could only dream of possessing and a strange, mechanical menagerie of miniature creatures, like Jules, a tiny metal horse.  With a grand technological exposition looming on the horizon, Nicolette knows she finally has a chance to escape and find the happily-ever-after about which she’s always dreamed.

I ended up reading Mechanica by Betsy Cornwell in one sitting.  For some reason I can’t fathom, I couldn’t seem to put it down.  It was a novel story that managed to combine magic and Faerie kingdoms with science-fiction and steampunk fantasy, while simultaneously tying together threads of fairy tale narratives—namely, Cinderella—and complex political and/or social conditions.  It was a fascinating story that appealed to me for the same reasons Cinder by Marissa Meyer appealed to me; in fact, it was easy to see the parallels between them.

Mechanica has man of the same characteristics as Cinder:  a downtrodden heroine, a mechanical best friend, a delicate political and social balance between disparate groups (between the human race and the Lunars in Cinder; between mankind of Esting and the magical citizenry of Faerie in Mechanica), an endearing human friend, a handsome prince who conceals his identity to mingle with the rest of the population, a mysterious disease.  It has more than a few similarities; it’s actually quite startling.  I can see why some readers have managed to toss it aside so easily.

However, Mechanica has its own unique, Cinderella-esque story.  Like Cinder, Nicolette is a strong and intelligent heroine.  She’s a builder, an inventor.  She doesn’t just repair automatons or her mother’s inventions, she makes them using her own ingenuity…and a little magic.  They share many of the same qualities, but, at its core, Cinder is a science-fiction novel.  Mechanica, on the other hand, is filled with fairy tales, tinged with elements of fantasy.

Now that I’ve gotten those comparisons out of the way, I’d like to point out that Mechanica has its own unique story.  As the book jacket promises, it’s a “richly imagined…retelling” of Cinderella.  I found I liked reading Nicolette’s narrative, not only for the inventiveness of her elaborate, steam-fueled world of cogs and glass and metal, but for the depth of her personality.

Nicolette is incredibly introspective and thoughtful.  She’s a dreamer, an inventor, and she seems to have this intricate world that stretches out in her mind, like a map, as she imagines new inventions, sketches out blue prints, designs pieces and parts, frets over her plans—for she does eventually have plans when she unearths her mother’s workshop—and wonders at her new friends.  At the same time, she’s recognizes her own faults and accepts her mistakes.

She knows she will make mistakes, she understands her own failings, because she knows no one is perfect.

For instance, after Nicolette meets Fin and Caro, she finds herself slowly falling for Fin, the first boy who has shown an interest in her work and, more to the point, has afforded her even the smallest bit of courtesy.  She realizes it’s silly to daydream about a boy she barely knows, but she does, because she likes to believe in fairy tales and romance, just as, let’s face it, we all do from time to time:

“I held whole conversations with him in my mind, telling him about the Steps’ inanity, or their coldness, or the transparent fawning of whatever beaux they had entertained that day.  I told him about my work as I made it, explaining the movements and turnings…the delicate clockwork that went into replicating Mother’s mechanical insects.  I spoke more with my imagined Fin than I did with the real Caro in our letters.  […]  Every once in a while, I would remember that I could count my actual interactions with him on one of my hands…”

Besides which, I absolutely loved that Nicolette was so self-sufficient.  Not only does she find a way to sell her beautiful baubles and her incredible inventions, she uses her money to go to the grand “Royal Exposition of Art and Science.”  The ball at the beginning of the event is not her goal; no, her true goal is to go the Expo and show off her inventions, gain a patron, and open a shop of her own and leave the horrible Steps behind.  She doesn’t have designs on the prince; in fact, she doesn’t want the prince.  She wants to create a life for herself, out of the shadow of her so-called family.

Her happily-ever-after doesn’t involve a crown; it involves a socket wrench and a mechanical horse named Jules.  Who needs the heir apparent when you have a strong pair of hands, a sound mind, and a noble steed to take you places?

Altogether, I enjoyed Mechanica and, just because it does resemble Cinder in many respects, I don’t think it’s a novel to easily dismiss.  While I felt a little ambivalent to the conclusion of Mechanica (I would have liked for a little more closure), it has a strong heroine, a good message, and, I think, an interesting story to tell that’s rich with detail and magic.  It’s a good start to a new series, and I’ll be looking for more from Betsy Cornwell.

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