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.