Icebreaker

Confession time: I thought Lian Tanner was a man.  This is entirely due to my own misreading of her first name as "Liam," and while I suppose a person of any gender can have any name, I didn't do my librarian due diligence and fact-check anything.

Anyway!  Lian Tanner is an Australian writer who wrote the Museum of Thieves books (which are still on my TBR--sorry!).  My supervisor speaks very highly of them, so I was pretty confident in requesting Icebreaker that I would get a good, solid story.  And I did.  But I do wonder a bit about the audience for the book.



Evidently, Icebreaker has been out in Oz since 2013, but evidently it's an enormous burden to publish a book that's written in the same language as the target market.  This happens a lot with UK books as well--US readers have to wait a long time for the next Skullduggery Pleasant or Sally Gardner book (please please hurry please!).  I'm sure it's one of those publisher Secret Rules for Tormenting Readers and Librarians.

Thankfully, Icebreaker and its sequels have made the long, long sea journey from Australia and will be docking in the US later this year.

In the far future (on our world?  Possibly.  On another Earth?  Equally as possible), public sentiment has turned against machinery.  As robotics transcended the role of Roomba vacuum cleaner or smartphone and instead became ever more sophisticated, the human population fell into a sort of Second Dark Ages, where anything machine equals the wicked, the demonic, and the soul-eating.  Anti-Machinist sentiment is running high as a brilliant scientist races to complete his greatest creation; a mechanical boy who carries the hope of mankind's future.  The scientist arranges for the boy to be spirited away on a great ship--an icebreaker--manned by trusted compatriots.

Only it doesn't quite work out as he planned.

Three hundred years later, the Osprey prowls the northern oceans, limping along on engines coaxed into functioning by the sheer will of the head engineer.  The instructions given to the crew by the scientist so many centuries ago were burned in a mass-hysteria breakout, and everyone descended into crude social stratification.  The top levels of the ship are restricted to Braid, the officer tribe.  Next comes Dufftown, home to the Cooks, and the very is Grease Alley, belonging to the Engineer tribe..  Then, there's the whole black rat population of the ship.  Petrel, however, belongs to no one.  She is the Nothing Girl, silent in the shadows, pretending to be "simple" in order to be left alone.

One day, Petrel spots something on an iceberg.  It's a boy!  The ship takes on the Outsider and immediately begins arguing about what to do with him.  Outsiders are dangerous, nasty things.  Petrel is convinced otherwise.  In this case, Petrel is wrong, and the suspicious crew are right.

The unnamed boy (later named Fin by Petrel) has been sent by the Anti-Machinists to infiltrate the ship and destroy its demon gods (engines).  He really, truly believes that the engines are wicked and will eat a person's soul and so forth.  Then again, I suppose if you've been routinely beaten as part of your "education" and told you must earn a name by condemning others to die, there's little option as to what you can and cannot believe.

Petrel, being a naturally inquisitive, trouble-making sort (she harbors no good will toward the Braid who want to toss the Outsider overboard, since they're the ones who executed her father and mother for high treason), decides that she wants to stage a jailbreak.  In this, she is aided by two large grey rats, who are exceedingly intelligent and rather verbose.  Unlike the plain black rats that proliferate among the squalor belowdecks, Mister Smoke and Missus Slink speak.  They are Petrel's only friends, and they have taught her the ins and outs (literally) of the ship's innards.

Once the escape plan is set into motion, events aboard the ship begin racing toward what could be either the Osprey's destruction or its salvation.  And this is where I feel like the story could have actually pulled back a bit.  If this is intended for upper elementary or middle grade students, I'm not sure that many kids would want to juggle all of the themes introduced as the story progresses.  We've got things like:

  • identity
  • faith versus friendship versus reality
  • murder
  • talking rats
  • a mysterious "sleeping captain" who will awaken when the ship needs him
  • secret passages
  • fever dreams
The murder aspect felt a bit unnecessary, as did the being-stalked-by-another-crew-member subplot.  It was a lot to handle, even for me.  However, had this been a longer book, the author would have been able to really dig into those meaty topics.  The reader also knows very little about the world they've been dropped into.  Why have machines become feared and hated?  What happened to the world to destroy it so?  I'm very glad there's a sequel; hopefully it expands upon this world, which I find extremely interesting.

Tanner's prose is lovely, however, and some turns of phrase were just wonderful to read.  Petrel's identity struggle is well done, and her transformation from scared orphan to decisive risk-taker is believable.  The secondary characters interested me as well, particularly Krill and Squid, the head cook and his compassionate daughter.  

Recommended for patient readers who don't mind waiting for a sequel to unravel more mysteries of this world.  Hopefully, you also accept talking rats, mechanical boys, and the collapse of civilization as we know it! 


Comments

  1. Yep, Lian is, I think, short for Gillian, as in Lian Hearn(Pen name for Gillian Rubinstein, author of a series of YA novels set in a Japanese AU). And there is a sequel to this, which I have read as part of the Aurealis Awards - that one was shortlisted for th children's section, as these are children's, not YA novels.

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