I really wanted this book to be amazing. I mean, look at that cover! It is gloriously betentacled! How can something with such lovely tentacles go so wrong?
The fundamental problem with The Transatlantic Conspiracy is that it does not know who its audience is. Soho Press markets it as a teen book, so I bought it for the teen collection, hoping to satisfy the steampunk enthusiasts until Phillip Reeve gets another book out there (no pressure!). It's a fairly slim volume, and it has illustrations.
Now, neither of those things disqualifies a book from being a teen book. Bronx Masquerade by Nikki Grimes, which is one of my favorite YA novels, is quite short. And heaven knows I love a detailed map. But the execution of the novel combines with the underdeveloped plot (as shown by the short length) and the juvenile illustrations to give you one very confused book. And one very confused reader.
Rosalind is visiting her good friend Cecily in England. She's glad to escape her mother's constant nagging about deportment and finding a husband and all that good pre-feminist stuff. In England, people think she's interesting because she's American, and even though she is poor compared to Cecily's landed nobility background, she's still treated with kindness. Therefore, Rose is rather put out to receive a telegram from her father calling her home. He even provides the tickets ... on the maiden voyage of his amazing Transatlantic Railway, which runs under the waves.
Okay, so I'm not exactly sure how this works. I think the train goes through a suspended tunnel under the waves, which Rosalind explains is held afloat by buoys. This seems excessively dangerous. What about water pressure? Not to mention the fact that the locomotive itself runs on electricity, which would mean that a breach in the tunnel would zap the Transatlantic Express to kingdom come.
But, you know, that's just logic. Ha-ha, why would one need logic? I do understand the concept of suspension of disbelief, but this tears it.
The train itself is luxuriously appointed, the Pullman car to end all Pullman cars. Except for second class, where they are jammed in like sheep.
Rosalind, being an independent-minded young lady, believes in outré things like women's lib and driving motorcars and breaking down social class barriers. Cecily, as a daughter of a peer of England, isn't exactly keen on this, but finds Rosalind's enthusiasm amusing. So does Alix, Cecily's German boarding school friend who also happens to be on the train. Thankfully, Rosalind does not end up meeting a devilishly handsome artist from second-class who teaches her how to live before dying in a dramatic yet totally unnecessary manner. Because yes, this book is also trying to be Titanic.
The girls are all very excited about dresses and flowers and such, and are especially tickled when two dashing Germans, Jacob and Erich, come to their table at dinner. If you asked me to tell you the difference between the two, I could not. One of them is military and the other is not, and Jacob's family evidently forgot that in German his name would be spelled with a "k."
But alas! Alack! Someone ends up being murdered! Good gracious! Spoiler alert: it's Cecily. And with Cecily's super-hot brother Charles being mysteriously detained in England, Rosalind must solve the case. There has been a suspicious man spying on them ever since they left Hamburg. He must be the murderer! Right?
Ah, no. The murder happens at least halfway into the book, and the investigation, which the cover has the audacity to compare to Agatha Christie's masterpiece Murder on the Orient Express. This is nowhere near the level of Christie. I mean, Agatha Christie is the Burj Dubai towering above the hovel of The Transatlantic Conspiracy. There really is no comparison. There's a bit of sneaking about, a bit of extra murder for flavor, spies, and ta-da! The end. Exit, pursued by a submersible.
Perhaps the author was banking on the hope that few readers would know anything about the events leading up to WWI. Everyone in the book is blissfully unaware of tensions between the UK and Germany. Kaiser Wilhelm himself does the sendoff for the train in Hamburg, and the train runs directly from Germany to the United States, providing a direct pipeline for materials without being touched by the British. Obviously, hindsight is 20/20, but based on what some characters know (as revealed at the end of the book), our plucky and smart heroine should have figured at least some of it out.
And then there are the illustrations. I generally approve of illustrations in steampunk books, but a) this is not really steampunk and b) the illustrations are ... not good. They look a bit like a kids' coloring book.
Finally, I think the author himself was confused as to for whom he was writing this story. The main characters are all older teens, but they talk and act as if they were about twelve. The plot is painfully simple and the murder mystery about as exciting as reading the tax code in its entirety. This might be a good hi-lo book for reluctant readers, or a very tame book for a younger child reading at a higher level.
I wish I had listened to the reviews and left this one alone. But no. The octopus on the front ensnared me with the false lure of steampunk and left me floundering in a barely-submerged tunnel under the Atlantic Ocean, wishing I'd never taken this transatlantic trip.
And now, for your reading pleasure, a short list of actual steampunk books that you should definitely read:
Mortal Engines by Philip Reeve (and the rest of the series)
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (ditto series)
The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson (sort of a steampunk-Harry Potter mashup_
Etiquette and Espionage by Gail Carriger (really, anything Gail Carriger)
The Iron Thorn by Caitlin Kittredge
Boneshaker by Cherie Priest