The Boneshaker: Original and enjoyable children’s fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsYA fantasy book reviews Kate Milford The BoneshakerThe Boneshaker by Kate Milford

Fans of Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes will find lots of echoes in Kate Milford’s debut novel The Boneshaker. It’s a connection that is impossible to avoid, what with the small-town young protagonist facing off against a mysterious carnival filled with creepy workers and an even creepier head showman. But this is no rip-off of Bradbury; nor is it simply a pleasant homage. From the same basic plot trappings Milford has woven her own highly original and enjoyable tale, one that builds slowly and patiently into a wonderfully compelling and satisfying conclusion.

Arcane, Missouri 1913 is a town at a crossroads. The literal one is comprised of two highways:  one going east-west coast-to-coast and the other traveling south-north from Louisiana to Canada. The metaphorical crossroads is yet to come for several of Arcane’s inhabitants (as well as several visitors). As the opening line of the novel says, “strange things can happen at a crossroads,” and strange things indeed ensue over the span of a few days in Arcane. Participant in it all is thirteen-year-old Natalie Minks, who spends her days working with her mechanic father constructing automatons filled with whirring gears and cogs or running around town with her group of same-aged friends or trying and failing as of yet to tame an odd bicycle she found and that her dad fixed up to be the “fasted bike in the world.”

At night, her mother tells her stories of Clever Jack, who so scares even the Devil that he isn’t allowed in hell so he roams the world looking for his own place; or more locally, of how Old Tom, who wanders about town with his guitar, outplayed the Devil and won a bet at the Crossroads.

Natalie’s days and nights therefore are filled with the everyday strangeness of childhood in summer. But at the start of The Boneshaker, Natalie has already had intimations of things taking a turn for the worse — she’d overheard talk of a strange “flu” in a nearby town that required the assistance of Arcane’s doctor, her family (father, mother, and older brother) were acting oddly, and she’d started to have some dizzy spells and odd visions. Things turn much more fearfully strange with the arrival of Doctor Jake Limberleg’s Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show and soon Natalie is in a pitched battle for the survival of her family and her town.

Natalie is a strong character and carries the reader effortlessly through the action:  sharply honest, full of energy, always curious, she’s a joy to spend time with from the start and the pleasure only deepens as we watch her grow to match her increasingly serious situations. Doctor Jake is a compellingly mysterious figure whose character deepens as the story goes on. That same sense of increasing depth of character is true as well for several others:  Old Tom, who advises Natalie to always “look evil in the eye”; strange Simon Coffrett, who owns the only mansion in town and who lets the traveling show use his lot for reasons the townspeople are afraid to ask; an odd drifter carrying a lantern who seems to recognize the traveling show; Natalie’s own mother, and even Miranda, a “snooty” and “annoying” friend of Natalie who could have been a stock character but becomes much more. Even the smaller side characters, such as Mr. Tilden, the general store owner, have a strong sense of personality and being.

The Boneshaker’s plot starts slowly but in a quietly enjoyable way, but soon the little hints of trouble start to snowball and the action shifts into high gear, especially in the latter third of the book, heading toward a breakneck ending. Along the way, Natalie and others are forced into some heartbreaking realizations and choices. The story completely resolves itself but one also is left with a sense that there are more stories to tell in Arcane, and I for one would love to see them.

With a wonderful companion of a protagonist in Natalie, lots of sharply interesting side characters, a great mix of folk ghost tales (bets with the Devil, Clever Jack, etc.), some hints of steampunk (automatons), and a fond nostalgic spicing of Bradbury, Kate Milford has cooked up just a thoroughly enjoyable tale that only gets better as it goes along and leaves you wanting more at the end. Highly recommended.

The Boneshaker — (2010) Ages 9-12. Publisher: Thirteen year-old Natalie Minks loves machines, particularly automata — self operating mechanical devices, usually powered by clockwork. When Jake Limberleg and his traveling medicine show arrive in her small Missouri town with a mysterious vehicle under a tarp and an uncanny ability to make Natalie’s half-built automaton move, she feels in her gut that something about this caravan of healers is a bit off. Her uneasiness leads her to investigate the intricate maze of the medicine show, where she discovers a horrible truth, and realizes that only she has the power to set things right. Set in 1913, The Boneshaker is a gripping, richly textured novel about family, community, courage, and looking evil directly in the face in order to conquer it.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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