A review by Nalini Haynes
Format: Paperback, 392 pages
Category: Children’s General Fiction
Imprint: Pan Australia (Macmillan)
The Book of Days is steampunk set in a fantasy world where pro-industrialist forces combat magic. The war is in hiatus but that doesn’t stop the industrial forces — daybreakers — from hunting down magically-inclined folk, torturing them and killing them.
Quintalion, a dark stranger with mismatched eyes, arrives at Madame Marisol’s Unreality House with an invitation to revive one of the inmates therein. Although suspicious of this stranger, Madame allows the sleeping teenager to be revived by a touch from Quintalion’s hand. She then releases the teenager, whom Madame named Tuesday, into Quintalion’s care. Tuesday has no memory of her past; this is, we think, normal. Her curiosity piqued by a letter from her past self, Tuesday disregards its plea and, instead, sets off to discover her past.
Quintalion is described as a scoundrel out to cheat and steal whatever he can and yet his declared motives conflict with his inconsistent behaviour. Tuesday’s acquisition of lifelong allies on a limited budget is not questioned regardless of the sacrifices these strangers make and yet, knowing far more of the world than Tuesday, these allies refuse to share their knowledge. Instead, Tuesday enters the unknown ill-prepared. For example, Tuesday attended Lady Fortuna’s court after receiving admonitions not to speak in her own defence without understanding the reasons behind these strictures, resulting in predictable calamity. Well, sometimes it results in predictable calamity. If the author follows through with a second novel, I’m calling Lady Fortuna’s price now.
The Book of Days world is broken internally. Tuesday lost her memory in the Unreality House; Jack, another former resident, woke with his memories intact; no-one questions why. Sterling cannot enter the City of Lost Things because he’s alive; his first attempt to do so caused irreparable damage to his hand. Later he enters the City intact; a monster seeks to kill him because he’s alive within the City. Narvi, Hester’s brother, died voluntarily thus opening the door to the City of Lost Things but he’s not within the city as he should be if he’s dead. Another dude who died similarly is within the City. I recommend switching off your critical brain and going with the flow to enjoy this book, a bit like when watching Doctor Who these days.
[The worst spoilers are done]
Jack, aka Jacobi Heller, is blind. Jack’s ‘blindness’ was really frustrating, jolting me out of the story again and again. There are multitudes of ways for someone to be blind or vision impaired. To the sighted, these different disabilities may seem inconsistent but every disability has its own internal consistency. Not so with Jack. Jack is blind but he’s an assistant librarian. He can’t read, his mother had to read to him as he went blind with a disease. No, his mother blinded him by touching his eyes to wake him in the Unreality House. He can’t read. Yes he can. He carries books and scrolls around, pulling information out of them when necessary, touching them the rest of the time.
Let’s pause to unpack the books and scrolls. Braille is a system whereby a blind person can read dots embossed into paper. However, Jack’s books appear to be for sighted people; there’s no mention of braille. There is NO. POSSIBLE. WAY. you can roll braille up into scrolls keeping the writing intact. I’ve handled braille paper and books, both kids’ and adults’ braille quality. The paper is not that flexible. Furthermore, if you forcibly rolled braille paper into scrolls, you’d ruin the braille. There’s no mention of some clever code cut into the edges of the scrolls, no means for Jack to be able to read or draw information from the pages. I waited for a ‘tricked you, not blind’ reveal or a magical-inconsistency reveal. Neither were forthcoming.
Jack is totally blind but he binds his eyes to shield himself from glare; he’s grateful for sunglasses to protect his eyes. So… Jack has partial eyesight? How much? Lemme guess, his father’s glasses will enable him to read where before he couldn’t.
Yeah, I know: I should be grateful that a person with a disability is in the story at all. I just think that if you wouldn’t write an Australian Aborigine and make him white whenever it wasn’t convenient to be black then you shouldn’t write a blind person with sight whenever being blind isn’t convenient. Plus I get enough harassment from people who really seem to believe that if I tried harder I could read that tiny print on the overhead projector, y’know, print so small that I’ve never been able to read it ever, even with the bestest possible glasses. Teachers apparently also believe it’s ok to give me a choice: miss out on classroom learning or read something so small it will cause eyestrain within minutes, including severe headaches and even worse vision while my eyes recover. This shit is real, people. If you’re going to write a vision impaired person, please get it right.
The Book of Days has strengths. It’s a journey-quest story that is fast-paced and interesting, with awesome steampunk modes of transport including dirigibles, dragon-drawn chariots and more. These modes of transport will inspire steampunk fan-art.
The first chapter of the Book of Days won the John Marsden Prize, Australia’s top writing prize for young people. The rest of the book struggled to maintain that opening standard and world-building consistency.
It’s marketed as a children’s book so I’m not sure how to evaluate the Book of Days. For children who haven’t read the like previously, I think the Book of Days will be an exciting uproarious journey.
While reading, I felt there were similarities between the farce The Importance of Being Ernest and some of Robert Rankin’s steampunk SFF comedies. Some adults will love this book to bits and re-read it regularly. Others will hurl it at the wall in between rants about Doctor Who. I’m giving the Book of Days 3 out of 5 stars. I recommend evaluating what I’ve said and deciding whether The Book of Days is your cup of herbal tea.
Rating: ★★★☆☆ 3/5 stars