The Steam Mole: A rollicking good time

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Steam Mole by Dave Freer YA fantasy book reviewsThe Steam Mole by Dave Freer

Dave Freer’s YA novel The Steam Mole is a rollicking good time. This book picks up almost immediately after Cuttlefish. Tim Barnabas and Clara Calland are now in Westralia, a free nation on the Australian continent. Clara and her scientist mother Mary have sought asylum from the dreaded coal-driven British Empire, alive and well in 1953 in this world, but Tim and the rest of the submarine’s crew are stranded while the Cuttlefish is being repaired.

Freer sets up the action quickly. On the threshold of safety, Mary Calland suddenly falls into a mysterious coma. Clara tries to reach Tim for help, but he has signed aboard a steam mole, a subterranean drill used in Westralia’s rich ore mines. He is deep in the desert. Back in London, the evil Duke Malcolm has arranged for Clara’s Irish rebel father, Jack, to be moved from an English prison to an Australian one, where he will be a bargaining chip — or bait — for Mary.

Tim, meanwhile, has become a victim of the bigotry of the Westralians. He is thrown off the steam mole into the desert. The white colonials believe that because he is dark-skinned he will survive just as well as a native, but they don’t understand that he is from underground London, unfamiliar with the desert. His very survival is in question.

In short order, Tim, Clara and Jack are all wandering around the desert. Jack engineered an escape from the prison work crew along with Lampy, a young native man, and Clara has hijacked a steam mole and is searching for Tim. No, of course I didn’t believe the coincidence of them all ending up in the same few miles of desert, but the story is exciting. The shifting viewpoints add drama and keep it moving at a good clip.

Back in the city of Ceduna, Mary, who has recovered to find her daughter missing, has her own set of challenges to face. Freer introduces a new character, Linda, who grows from being a sheltered and rather shallow colonial girl to a young woman with her own thoughts, dreams and ideas as she assists Mary with her experiments.

The Steam Mole is less episodic and more compelling than Cuttlefish, maybe because there is definite locus of action. Freer’s descriptions of the desert and the tunnels for the cable trains are excellent. The only real weakness in the book is the villain, Duke Malcolm, head of Britain’s secret service, who looks incompetent by the end of this adventure.

As with Cuttlefish, Freer has lots of fun with his mechanical inventions. The steam mole, the cable trains and the flying machines are delightful contraptions and each one plays a big role in the story. The Steam Mole is a fast, exciting read that does not shy away from some tough issues like racial and gender bigotry and institutional corruption. Things may wrap up a little too smoothly at the end, but there is plenty left to think about. This is an enjoyable YA adventure.

Cuttlefish — (2012) Publisher: The smallest thing can change the path of history. The year is 1976, and the British Empire still spans the globe. Coal drives the world, and the smog of it hangs thick over the canals of London. Clara Calland is on the run. Hunted, along with her scientist mother, by Menshevik spies and Imperial soldiers, they flee Ireland for London. They must escape airships, treachery, and capture. Under flooded London’s canals, they join the rebels who live in the dank tunnels there. Tim Barnabas is one of the underpeople, born to the secret town of drowned London, place of anti-imperialist republicans and Irish rebels, part of the Liberty — the people who would see a return to older values and free elections. Seeing no farther than his next meal, Tim has hired on as a submariner on the Cuttlefish, a coal-fired submarine that runs smuggled cargoes beneath the steamship patrols, to the fortress America and beyond. When the Imperial soldiery comes ravening, Clara and her mother are forced to flee aboard the Cuttlefish. Hunted like beasts, the submarine and her crew must undertake a desperate voyage across the world, from the Faeroes to the Caribbean and finally across the Pacific to find safety. But only Clara and Tim Barnabas can steer them past treachery and disaster, to freedom in Westralia. Carried with them — a lost scientific secret that threatens the very heart of Imperial power.

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Marion Deeds, with us since March, 2011, is the author of the fantasy novella ALUMINUM LEAVES. Her short fiction has appeared in the anthologies BEYOND THE STARS, THE WAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, STRANGE CALIFORNIA, and in Podcastle, The Noyo River Review, Daily Science Fiction and Flash Fiction Online. She’s retired from 35 years in county government, and spends some of her free time volunteering at a second-hand bookstore in her home town. You can read her blog at deedsandwords.com, and follow her on Twitter: @mariond_d.

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