Let’s make this very clear from the start: I LOVE alternate histories. So if you say to me, “Check it out – this is a detailed look at how the world might have changed if Napoleon had defeated Wellington at Waterloo,” I will be on page 15 before you’ve finished your sentence. And if you follow that up with “And it’s got this awesome plot with political intrigue and ghosts and murder,” I will have run off with your book in my hand. (I’ll give it back after I’ve finished. Maybe.)
The Explosionist delivers a rip-roaring story, with all of the above elements in spades. Sophie is a schoolgirl in Scotland, which has fully split from England since Napoleon’s victory and is now part of the Hanseatic League. It is a turbulent time in Sophie’s Scotland, with terrorist bombings on the rise, and the country seems to be slowly gearing up for war with Europe. In Sophie’s own life, she is not only negotiating the everyday trials of being a teenager – her roommates’ constant teasing about Sophie’s crush on her science teacher, for instance – but she has also been drawn into investigation of a dangerous plot. While looking for further information from a medium who delivered a strange message to Sophie during one of her Great-aunt’s seances, Sophie and Mikael stumble onto a murder. Not knowing who they can trust, the two friends conduct their own investigation. What they find has implications for the entire world, and puts Sophie in immediate danger.
Davidson’s world-building is extraordinarily well done. It is clear that the history, science, and culture of The Explosionist has been given serious thought, and the world that has been created is both interesting and plausible. The implications of a single change in history ripple through all aspects of the story, from the current political situation to the worldview of teenage girls in Scotland. I was especially curious about two choices that Davidson made, one of which is integral to the story and one of which was mentioned only in passing.
Multiple times in the story, Davidson alludes to great cultural and scientific achievements such as “the theology of Count Tolstoy, the novels of Richard Wagner, the verse of Albert Einstein, or the operas of James Joyce” (page 62). There were just enough of these asides to be distracting, and to make me feel like Davidson was trying to make some point beyond showcasing the subtle differences between this world and ours. Whether her point was that genius will come forward in whatever form is cultivated, or that great achievements like “the Wittenberg Uncertainty Principle” would eventually come to light even without their original creators, I’m not sure. Perhaps this is something that Davidson will address in a sequel.
Much more central to the plot is the genuine spiritualism that is found in Sophie’s world. The spiritualists in the world of The Explosionist have much in common with the spiritualist movement that was popular in certain American and European social circles in the late 1800s and early 1900s, where societies of wealthy women would gather for seances and other communications with the spirit world. There is one major difference – in Davidson’s book, spiritualism is not only widely believed, but is genuine and commonplace, to the point where it can be difficult to tune a radio without interference from spirit voices. In fact, the mysterious plot that Sophie and Mikael investigate cannot be unraveled without significant guidance from spirits, or without Sophie’s unwanted talents as a spirit medium. It is not clear whether this advance in spirit communication also stems somehow from Wellington’s defeat at Waterloo, or whether this is a difference that has always existed in the world of The Explosionist.
Davidson created not only a complete world for her novel, but also a web of well-rounded and complex characters. With one key exception, even characters who are doing wrong believe that they are acting for the good of the country. Sophie’s Great-Aunt Tabitha is especially compelling. Her own faith in the IRYLNS program, a training program for perfect secretaries that she created and still champions, is thrown up against her increasing desire to keep Sophie out of the program. Ultimately, we see a woman who truly believes that people would be better off without any emotions thrown for a loop by her love for her ward. The choices made by Great-aunt Tabitha are the most chilling part of the novel.
While I did not see anything on the author’s website, it sure feels like there will be a sequel coming. I hope to enjoy Sophie’s further adventures, and to learn more about Jenny Davidson’s imaginative version of history.
Edited to add: The author has shared some thoughts on the spiritualism in the book over on her blog, in response to a review by the wonderful Jo Walton.
Jenny Davidson on the web
The Explosionist on the web