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Worldshaker by Richard HarlandTwo stars
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Obvious Themes Are Obvious in Richard Harland’s Worldshaker, a young adult Victorian steampunk adventure with a plot so steeped in cliché it might have been written by James Cameron. Colbert Porpentine (I kept wanting to say “Palpatine”) is the young scion of the noblest of noble families aboard the juggernaut Worldshaker, a colossal coal-powered vessel roaming the continents, over two miles long and towering 1320 feet above the landscape. This makes it taller than the Empire State Building. Is there that much coal on Earth?  

The vessel is a self-contained society in which there exists the usual stratification: the Haves live on the luxurious upper decks while the Have-Nots, here known as the Filthies, labor down below, despised, shunned, treated as subhuman beasts of burden. The Worldshaker is so thoroughly insular a society that its people have forgotten the lessons of history, even recent history. The complacency of the privileged classes leads to appalling crimes against humanity and the most hypocritical justifications of same. Occasionally, Filthies will be hauled up from belowdecks, where they are lobotomized into Menials, to live in a state of mindless servility. Col’s otiose grandmother has her own favorite Menial whom she deliberately neglects and abuses, simply so that she can put on a self-gratifying act of compassion and sympathy.

Perhaps the justification for Worldshaker is that it is designed to appeal to young readers who are not already overly familiar with its hackneyed tropes: a young man of noble birth whose personal awakening to the social injustices all his peers ignore causes him to question assumptions of a whole lifetime; his taboo love for Riff, a Filthy girl; his realization that the oppressed Filthies are people too; the inevitable revolution in which he’ll have to choose sides — and we know which he’ll choose, even though it will mean the toppling of all he has known. We’ve seen this basic plot dressed and redressed so very many times. 

I won’t say none of it is entertaining reading. It is, and one of the book’s mercies is that in spite of their archetypal simplicity, Harland makes Col and Riff heroes you can root for. But the entertainment value is never more than superficial. In his earnestness to impart themes of great moral gravitas, Harland lays it all on too thick. Heroes and villains are clearly and unambiguously defined, the story’s lessons driven home with anvilicious unsubtlety. The only character who evinces anything like realistic moral ambiguity is Col’s sister Gillabeth, clearly smarter and more capable than Col is in so many ways, who must sit back and watch as Col is named heir to the command of Worldshaker by their grandfather, supreme commander Sir Mormus — simply because Col is male and she isn’t. Her character arc is at least interesting, her one big immoral act in the story at least sympathetic, as it’s borne of much the same righteous anger as that of the Filthies. 

But for the most part, Harland is content to reduce his tea-and-crumpets nobility to cartoon characters. He makes much of the quivering double chins of elderly matriarchs, the dishonest and ludicrously rehearsed social rituals of the gentry. A lovably potty Queen Victoria is present herself, loyal Albert in tow. Harland’s storytelling simply lacks the intellectual nuance of the best young adult writers, like Rowling or Stroud. (Indeed, scenes in which Col attends school, under an instructor who appears to be mentally ill, offer the most obvious points of comparison to Rowling, and the clearest displays of Harland’s lack of finesse.)

Finally, there are those purely unbelievable narrative strikes that undo all the novel’s good intentions. Once the inevitable revolution erupts, we are offered an anticlimax fit to annoy the shaggiest of dogs, in which events are resolved far too conveniently by characters behaving to suit the needs of a plot rather than how anyone might really behave. 

And I was never really sold on the juggernauts either, and not just for reasons that the technology to construct one seems much too far beyond the story’s times, even given a steampunk milieu. (Why some steampunk writers think that you can build anything with brass gears and pipes is a mystery to me.) England is not the only country to have built one of these. We’re told there are at least a few of them, competing for resources, which I can only imagine. Their origins and history are eventually revealed in a subplot — a history that has been forgotten by everyone aboard, and must be ferreted out of a dusty and disorganized library. But I never bought it. The environmental damage juggernauts do is cataclysmic. Given their gigatonnage I could never believe they wouldn’t break down. And for the reasons the juggernauts were built, they could as easily have built arcologies. They’d have to worry a hell of a lot less about coal, for one thing. Worldshaker proves, if nothing else, that good intentions do not a great story make.

Followed by Liberator.