At first it seems like The Unnaturalists, Tiffany Trent’s young adult fantasy, is a relatively light-weight paranormal romance. In the opening chapter, Vespa Nyx, the rebellious daughter of the curator of the New London Museum of Unnatural History, meets an annoying new Pedant named Hal Lumin. In fact, he rescues her when something goes wrong with a containment field holding a live Sphynx. It seems that Vespa’s biggest problems will be learning to be “ladylike” and facing an arranged marriage. In fact, the stakes for Vespa and the entire city are much, much higher than that.
The city of New London exists in a different world that ours. Saint Nicola Tesla opened a portal and transported the city to a world where magic exists. On the surface, New Londoners revere science and abhor magic, calling famous scientists in history “saints,” but their lives are powered by a substance they call myth. Vespa was brought up believing that myth is mined in the mountains in the north, and brought to New London for refining, but the truth is something far worse. A folk tale memorialized in hundreds of paintings, that of Athena, the daughter of an Emperor who was executed for being a witch, is used as a cautionary tale and veiled threat for most young women of New London, but Vespa soon begins to question whether the story of Athena is accurate at all. She soon discovers that Athena’s destiny, hers and in fact the world’s are twined together like the braided cord on Pedant’s robes.
Syrus is a Tinker, living with his clan beyond the city walls. The Tinkers have sworn to protect the magical creatures who in turn protect this world from a blighting energy called The Waste. His family is close to the manticore who protects the great forest beyond the city walls. When his clan is killed during a brutal “culling” by the raven-headed guards of the empress of New London (survivors are taken as slaves to work the myth refineries), the manticore tells Syrus to go to the city and find the witch. Only she can save this world.
Tiffany Trent alternates point of view between Syrus and Vespa. Vespa’s sections are first-person and present tense, creating a sense of immediacy and once in a while some time confusion, since Syrus is past tense. A couple of times it took me a minute to figure out when something had happened. Vespa confronts the glittering fashionista surface of aristocratic society when she becomes the companion of a self-centered daughter of the ruling class, while Syrus battles the more gritty reality of this well-realized and sinister world. The glittering surface is no picnic either, as Vespa discovers to her deepening horror.
The magical underpinnings, the threat of the Waste and the image of a New London that exists in more than one dimension are well thought out. Moments in the book are vulgarly funny, as when Syrus gets trapped in a water closet with a noble lady, and slyly funny, like the stained glass window that shows Saint Pasteur chastising a serpent-tailed Lord Byron for his licentious poetry. The lighter tone of the opening becomes darker and more serious as more is revealed.
Moments in The Unnaturalists, particularly those in the Night Emporium, which resembled Diagon Alley, reminded me a bit of Harry Potter, but this book is not derivative. Some of the supporting characters, specifically the villain and Vespa’s father, are not well developed, but it’s clear that they are willing participants in the inequity and evil of this society. While Trent does seem to be setting up a series, this plot of The Unnaturalists wraps up in a breath-taking and satisfactory way. Our main characters are vulnerable and heroic. The Unnaturalists was a very good read and I look forward to seeing more adventures of Lumin and Nyx, Imperial Unnaturalists.