Wednesday, 18 August 2010
Review: Haywired by Alex Keller
In the quiet village of Little Wainesford, Ludwig Von Guggenstein is about to have his unusual existence turned inside out. When he and his father are blamed for a fatal accident during the harvest, a monstrous family secret is revealed. Soon Ludwig will begin to uncover diabolical plans that span countries and generations while ghoulish machines hunt him down. He must fight for survival, in a world gone haywire.
There has been something of a back lash against steampunk in recent months, with some critics stating that it has already 'last year's thing'. Even the legend that is Philip Reeve has joined in by writing on his blog that steampunk is dead. It is certainly a bandwagon that many an aspiring author has attempted to jump on over the last few years, and I would imagine that for every excellent steampunk story published there have also been several poorer books released into the world. I personally love a good steampunk story, and I am currently waiting excitedly for the release of Scott Westerfeld's Behemoth, the sequel to his excellent Leviathan, and also The Society of Dread, Glenn Dakin's follow-up to the first book in his Candle Man series, both of which had many elements that the book-reading public now associate with the steampunk genre. I therefore did not hesitate to say yes when Mogzilla contacted me asking if I would like a copy of Alex Keller's debut Haywired. In fact, the cover itself was enough to garner a positive reaction to their proposal - illustrator Rachel de Ste. Croix has done a fantastic job on it (and for those of you for whom book cover design is important you can read more about the design process here at Rachel's blog).
Haywired is very different to the steampunk books I have read so far. The publishers are calling it a steampunk fairytale, and I cannot come up with a better phrase to describe it, as that is exactly how it reads. The fairytale feel to the story is there from the very first page and at times it is as if the Brothers Grimm were alive and well and writing for a steampunk loving audience. Like many fairytales it is also relatively short, weighing in at a slim 170 pages, but even so it still manages to pack quite a punch. Of course, most adults know that the Grimm fairy tales were exactly that - grim. In their original form they were often full of pretty nasty stuff, involving nasty and bloody endings for characters both good and bad, and they were certainly not the sweet and sanitised stories that we came to supposedly know well thanks to the Disney machine. Haywired is like this as well - the story is deliciously dark in places, people die and often in particularly nasty ways, and the main villain of the story would fit better in an adult horror fantasy story than in a Disney animated film, so much so that Mogzilla are marketing this book at the 11+ age group, despite it being significantly shorter than many of the books that are released for this age group.
The main character of the story is Ludwig von Guggenstein, son of Mandrake von Guggenstein, a kind of mad professor style inventor to most, but not in the eyes of his trusting son. Ludwig loves nothing more than working with his father on his various inventions, all of which seem to him to have great value in improving the lives of the local community in which they live. However, a series of unfortunate events lead to Ludwig making a discovery about his family that first of all makes him confused, then totally overjoyed, before suddenly turning his world upside down, at which point he finds himself running away from home, not sure whether he should be fearing for his life. Unlike many steampunk stories Haywired is not set in alternate London, New York or any other recognisable Earth country; instead, Alex Keller has opted to create his own world, although being a relatively short book the world itself takes something of a back seat.
The ensuing adventures of Ludwig and his companion (about whom I will say no more for fear of creating a spoiler) see them encountering a variety of colourful characters, both good and evil, and at times Ludwig is unsure about who to trust as the motivations of these characters are generally difficult for him to work out. However, he finds himself swept along by the now life-threatening events that become unavoidable for him, especially when he finds himself the hunted prey of his father's most sinister creations, the HELOTs (Heuristic Engine with Learning and Obedience Tailoring). Again, it is difficult to describe these without giving away too much of the story; suffice to say there is more than a little of the Baron von Frankenstein in Mandrake von Guggenstein.
As I said, Haywired is relatively short, and as such it faces the same criticism as I levied at David Gatward's debut The Dead. It really could do with an extra thirty or so pages as the climactic scene where Ludwig must finally confront his father was far too short (a mere four pages) and the book ended too suddenly for my liking, and I felt that his father's actions at the end were unrealistic given the preceding events. If this was a movie I think viewers at an early test screening would express displeasure, and the ending would be reshot to improve it. It is a shame that I was left feeling a little cheated after what had been a thoroughly enjoyable read up to that point.
This criticism aside this is still a hugely enjoyable addition to the ever growing list of steampunk type stories for young readers (and despite his misgivings about the steampunk genre I have even seen Philip Reeve mention on Twitter that he was enjoying reading it). A sequel, entitled Rewired, is planned to be released in the spring of 2011 and am looking forward to seeing what happens to Ludwig and his companions in the next instalment. Haywired is due to be published on 1st September.