Song of the Slums by Richard Harland

Song of the Slums

a review by Nalini Haynes

Song of the Slums is a YA novel by award-winning steampunk author, Richard Harland.

Set in an alternative 19th century England, wars have created wealthy plutocrats whose industry has polluted the landscape and destroyed the lives of the lower classes.

The publisher says:

In the slums of Brummingham, the outcast gangs are making a new kind of music, with pounding rhythms and wild guitars. Astor Vance has been trained in refined classical music. But when her life plummets from riches to rags, the only way she can survive is to play the music the slum gangs want. Charismatic Verrol, once her servant, is now her partner in crime… and he could be so much more if only he’d come clean about his mysterious past…

Song of the Slums is the literature equivalent of a 90-minute feel-good movie where the down-trodden discover their talent and triumph over great odds to save the day. [Spoilers, Sweetie] Many of the same tropes are in evidence: He (or in this case she) Knows Too MuchCorrupt Corporate Executive, Evil Diva, Mass Hypnosis, Oblivious to Love, Reunion Revenge, and more. [Spoilers End] 

Where Song of the Slums is set apart is in the steampunk alternate history setting; this would make a gorgeous movie in the rock-band-triumph genre, whose audience seems insatiable. The musical instruments strongly remind me of the ‘trash music’ of the 1980s where people gathered in Salamanca Market making beautiful music from recycled objects such as juice bottles and jars. While the clothing worn by the upper classes is Victorian, in the slums creativity born of poverty is the rule. Slum clothes are reminiscent of alternate lifestylers in this era. Inspirational for receptive creatives, this novel could be responsible for a new generation of clothes designers and creative musicians.

This is a feel-good novel that transports the reader emotionally while set in a world of sharp contrasts: dirty world, gorgeous clothing, rock music made from improvised instruments. Song of the Slums is a fun literary ride reminiscent of movies like Josie and the Pussycats and Honey. Highly recommended for fans of YA, steampunk, alternate histories and more.