The Broken Lands by Kate Milford. Clarion Books, 2012. Currently Available.
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Does it Break the Slate? Once again, resoundingly yes. Kate Milford has created another epic fantasy piece with young people (specifically again, young woman) at the center. These young people, which in this book includes both young men and young women, are not mere victims of circumstance, but active agents of world-saving. I love it. Milford also makes a meaningful commitment to diversity – characters in this book are white, black and Chinese – without ever feeling tokenistic or reductive.
Who would we give it to? If you liked The Boneshaker, you should definitely also read The Broken Lands. And for a great, scary historical fantasy, this is going to be perfect for you.
Review: I loved The Boneshaker an extraordinary amount, so I was really excited about this companion book. It’s also important to note that this book can 100% stand on it’s own – it is not a sequel, and only includes one overlapping character. The Broken Lands takes place a few decades before The Boneshaker, and trades in the small town for New York City and Brooklyn in 1877. The story builds on the history of the Brooklyn Bridge, and the moment in time when that bridge – that crossroads – was being constructed.
Our main characters are Sam, a card sharp whose father died building the bridge, and Jin, a “pyrotechnical prodigy” who travels with a touring fireworks show. Their lives become intersected when a dead body is discovered, labeled “Claimed by blood for Jack Hellcoal.” Suddenly, they are instrumental players in the fight to keep their city safe from unimaginable dark forces. The story unfolds from there, and once again, Kate Milford has crafted an impeccable narrative, built on legend and story, and the things made real by belief.
Milford’s world building is outstanding, giving us a terrifying and mysterious alternate history, rooted in real people and places. And of course, the Slatebreaking element is once again instrumental to the narrative. Sam and Jin are both wonderful protagonists, who I loved, as are the wide ranging supporting characters, both male and female. (I was particularly fond of Ilana Ponzi, Sam’s little sister surrogate who refuses to be protected and would rather be part of the action). None of the girls conform to traditional expectations of femininity for the time, but they are written in a way that still feels historically believable. Jin is an incredibly Slatebreaking character. A young Chinese woman in a time when almost no Chinese women were living in the United States, Jin spends a lot of time fighting against people’s expectations of her – especially given her talent and love of exploding things. Still, she manages to keep her sense of humor. I particularly loved this scene, when she goes to purchase the necessary materials for her fireworks display.
McNulty held up a hand. “Wait. Your idea, meaning you came up with this list? Figured out the chemicals, worked out the quantities? Some of these are terribly dangerous, you know. Especially in combination.”
Jin pursed her lips and looked at him silently, trying to decide if he was joking or not.
“Really?” she said finally. “Could you tell me a little bit more? You don’t think they might, say, explode, or anything, do you?”
And Sam is an equally wonderful character, good hearted and loyal, to his friends and to his home. The romance that develops between these two characters feels not only authentic, but deeply earned, and satisfying. These characters, along with the other young people who are at the core of saving New York and Brooklyn, are much more than children who happen to be at the right place at the right time, magically able to save the day – they are strong and independent characters who defeat evil because of who they are and what they are capable of.
The mystery, and the quest to save humanity presented in this book holds shades of the stories introduced in The Boneshaker, but still, nothing feels predictable or re-done. There are still greater mysteries at play, and it feels like there are many more stories that could be mined from the mythology Milford has been creating across these two volumes. I want to close this review with one last quote from the book, that feels even more fitting, given the left-unanswered questions that arise over the course of these two novels:
“If there was only one way to read a book,” Burns said with a little smile, “any book in the world – if there was only one way to read and understand it, what would be the point of reading that book?”
Kate Milford doesn’t create works of fiction that can be read only in one way. There’s a lot left to the imagination. She gives power to her young readers to find their own answers within her text. And really, what could be more Slatebreaking than that?
Reviewed from library copy.