A series of mysteries. An explosion of truths.The Explosionist: Someone sets off a bomb outside fifteen-year-old Sophies boarding school, but no one can figure out who. The Medium: Soothsayers and séance leaders are regular guests at her great-aunts house in Scotland, but only one delivers a terrifying prophecy, directed at Sophie herself.The Murder: When the medium is found dead, Sophie and her friend Mikael know they must get to the bottom of these three mysteries in order to save themselves—even as the fate of all Europe hangs in the balance.Set in a time of subversive politics, homegrown terrorism, and rapidly changing alliances, The Explosionist is an extraordinarily accomplished debut novel for teens that delivers a glimpse of the world as it might have been—had one moment in history been altered.
Sophie is an intelligent and well-brought-up girl on the verge of taking her final exams in Edinburgh, 1938. In a world in which Wellington lost to Napoleon at Waterloo, there are many subtle differences from our world. In fact, it took me a few chapters of minor details that struck me as odd to be sure this was an alternate history. Sophie’s Scotland hears rumors of the terrors enacted in Europe (which engulfed England long before), but they have thus far stayed resolutely politically neutral, while providing weaponry to the various warlike nations. Then Sophie stumbles across a plot to pull Scotland into the war, and not only does she have to uncover it, but deal with her increasing suspicions that her Great-Aunt’s pet governmental project doesn’t educate young women so much as brainwash them…
I really like Sophie, who has a distinct personality and is delightfully competent, while remaining totally believable as a 15 year old who’s been somewhat sheltered. She figures out the main mystery not that long after I did (which was a relief–I hate stories where the solution is obvious but no one picks up on it). And I appreciated how many interesting adult characters there were with their own priorities and stories. (Personal favorite of course was her poised and mysteriously knowledgeable history professor, Miss Chatterjee.) I particularly loved discovering the differences between Sophie’s society and my expectations. For instance, thanks to their isolation from trade and independence from England, Scotland developed rather different technologies, with greater emphasis on electrically-based tech than in reality. But there are still enough similarities (there’s a running thread about the terrible food her boarding school and aunt’s cook serve Sophie that I loved encountering–I’ll never get tired of hearing about gooseberry fool and “shapes”) and references to known historical personages (sometimes serving rather different roles than expected) that it still feels recognizable.
My only quibble with this book is that it’s developed quite well and written at a good pace until the last few chapters, which both resolve too many things too swiftly, and set up a huge cliffhanger. I did not expect this to end in a cliffhanger, let alone such a huge one! I suppose I’ll have to read the next book. I would have read it anyway, and now I’m a bit sulky that the author felt I needed to be coerced into doing so in such a hamfisted way.
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