Sunday, December 12, 2010

Review of Boneshaker by Kate Milford

Milford, Kate. The Boneshaker. Clarion, 2010.

I watched the movie The Polar Express for the first time just a couple of days ago and was astonished at its general eeriness. Quite apart from the motion capture animation technique, which created some odd facial expressions, there was a creepy, sinister feeling to the whole movie that I didn't expect. One scene, in which three children wander through an apparently deserted North Pole town, accompanied only by piped-in tinny Christmas music coming from invisible speakers, reminded me of the early 90s video game Myst. The children seemed to be in mortal peril throughout the film, and I think it would have terrified me as a child.

Boneshaker's creepiness was likewise a surprise to me; the illustrations, the 1914 Missouri setting, and the whole Medicine Show aura led me to expect a more folksy sort of fantasy, with the bad guys being perhaps a bit goofy.

But no! The men - or whatever they are - who come to Arcane, Missouri and set up Dr. Jake Limberleg's Nostrum Fair and Technological Medicine Show are truly evil creatures, with malice and mayhem on their minds. And there are other dodgy characters peopling Arcane as well, including a walking dead man (or something like that) who happens to be the town's richest inhabitant. And oh yes - there are demons, and while one of them is a bit comic, the other means business.

At the heart of the story is 13-year-old Natalie Minks, whose father is a mechanic and whose ill mother has a secret. Natalie doesn't trust Dr. Limberleg and the four "paragons" who help him run his medicine show, and she discovers that all is not as it seems. Somehow these "healers" are actually spreading a horrible disease instead, and only Natalie can stop them before they destroy her town - and maybe the whole world.

The Medicine show, with its tents and lights and strange steampunky contraptions and sinister inhabitants, is most of the important action takes place, and it's a terrifying place to be. As in Polar Express and Myst, it is a surreal setting, strangely silent and still except for unsettling jagged pieces of sound (jingling bells, clashing cymbals) and the feeling that something bad is about to happen.

The explanation of this scary medicine show, and much else besides, comes in fits and starts - mostly by overheard conversations and also by strange "memories" that Natalie experiences, a symptom of her emerging magical gift. This technique drags down the pace somewhat but doesn't detract from a story that becomes more creepy the more it unwinds. There are indeed some folksy bits - an ancient black man who tangled with the devil and managed to best him, for instance - and somehow the juxtaposition of these with the scalp-crawling elements make the whole thing even creepier.

It doesn't all hang together. The point of Natalie's unusual bicycle and the other mechanical elements is unclear to me, and the walking dead man's tale, which I'm betting is intriguing indeed, will apparently be told in a sequel (or at least it better be). The pacing is uneven and the role of Natalie's fellow townspeople is somewhat vague - what they know and how they know it isn't made clear.

Nevertheless, this is a fine and unique example of an American-style tale of the Devil, with our folk hero Clever Jack playing a cameo role. It's not something I'd hand to just any kid, as it's a complicated and scary tale, but it's quite a meaty and satisfying read. I'm looking forward to reading more about the strange town of Arcane, Missouri. For ages 11 to 14.

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