Thursday, August 16, 2012

Steampunk Science: Tiffany Trent's The Unnaturalists

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: I am jealous of Tiffany Trent. Oh, not because she is an intelligent and entertaining writer, though she certainly is that. I am jealous because the heroine of her new book, The Unnaturalists, has the best name in the entirety of fiction.

Vespa Nyx.

And yes, the character is as great as the name implies.
Vespa Nyx lives in the city of New London. It’s a science-mad place, where “OMG!” has been replaced by expressions such as “By Saint Darwin and his apes!” Vespa wants nothing more than to follow in the footsteps of her Unnaturalist father, and work in the museum as a scientist, to become the second female Pedant in the history of the realm.

Yet even though science is sacred in New London, magic still exists. The city itself runs on the power of myth, and the Unnaturalists study the Unnaturals, from the Sphinx to the sylphids, at the museum. Still, magic has been made safe – a museum curiosity, nothing more.

But myth and magic cannot stay safely locked in the museum, and neither can Vespa.  She meets the intriguing Pedant Lumin and Syrus, one of the Tinkers who lives outside of the city, both of whom need her help. There is pressure on her to marry. And Vespa discovers that she is more than she knew.

The Unnaturalists is a delight of a book. Vespa is a standout character, but all of the characters are real and compelling. Trent’s New London is an interesting place, and she has done a terrific job filling it with potential. There is bravery and romance, mystery and heartbreak, and it’s the kind of place where I would happily return. (The Unnaturalists has a satisfying ending, and works on its own merits, but I am already eagerly awaiting the sequel.)

I loved that The Unnaturalists made me think about the nature of storytelling, and how we use story as a way of deciding what we hold sacred – how the shift of a story is the difference between “By Saint Catherine!” and “By Saint Newton!” It also made me think about what happens to a society that forgets its origins, and cannibalizes its own myths. When it comes down to it, though, I think the thing that impressed me the most about The Unnaturalists is that this is not a book of absolutes. There is conflict, certainly, between magic and science, and the adherents of each, but the conflict is not Magic versus Science, with one being wholly good and the other wholly bad. Trent’s New London is a place of both, and is more interesting because of it.

And I’m still jealous of the name Vespa Nyx.

By Kat Howard