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Engines of the Broken World
by Jason VanHee
After a long illness, Merciful Truth’s mother dies. She and her brother Gospel want to give her a proper burial, but the ground is frozen solid so they stash her under the kitchen table, instead. As they sit shivering, Gospel tells his sister of a sinister fog that he’s seen while out hunting, a whiteness that seems to reduce everything it touches to nothing. As the fog closes in, Gospel reasons, it’s ending the world, and eventually it will wash over their farmhouse and they will cease to exist, too. The only thing that offers comfort is the Minister, a strange animal-like thing that offers words of solace even as it continues to hide secrets from the children…
Engines of the Broken World is a richly atmospheric tale that makes your skin crawl as you anticipate the approach of that oozing, threatening white fog. But hey, what sort of story can you expect when it opens on a girl stashing her mother's body under the kitchen table? When the dead won’t lie still and a shape-shifting made creature preaches to small children, it’s hard to predict where the next prickle at the back of your neck will come from. It’s the end of the world, but no one feels fine about it.
At times, the characters seem incredibly dense. Merciful is told to that she must find a machine and destroy it if she's to save the world, and she dutifully tries. It's so obvious to the reader what machine needs to be destroyed, but Merciful spends pages and pages not figuring this out, and after a while you want to smack her upside the head and shout, "MERCY IT'S [REMOVED FOR SPOILERS]!!! DUH!!!" Sometimes she sounds like a very small girl, while at other times she’s nearly an adult, and this constant back-and-forth adds to the uncertainty of the text.
One of the problems that I kept running into is a certain stiffness to the writing. I can’t quite put my finger on what it is. Maybe it’s just that the story is told through Merciful’s uneven old-lady-young-child voice, or the fact that neither she nor her brother sounds like “real” children. Then again, it may be the archaic King James style of speaking employed by the Minister, and the sort of half-baked and reprocessed version of heavy-handed religion he spouts.
Or maybe the constant ambiguity simply overwhelms after a while. Nothing is certain in the story save that the world is getting smaller, but even that’s not quite so. As the white fog devours the world, Merciful is learning about a larger “other” world in her conversations with her mother’s corpse, so her universe is expanding rapidly. Her uncertainty is made clearer when it’s revealed that the Minister has some ability to block or erase her memories of it. It’s soon clear to the reader that the narrator is fundamentally unreliable. Can we really know what’s happening? Throw in an unresolved, wide-open ending, and the net result is simply discomfort.
2.5 out of 5 stars
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Peeking into the archives...today in:
2013: Fairest by Gail Carson Levine
2012: Book Reviews by Author, A-H
2011: Sometimes I Feel Like a Nut by Jill Kargman
2010: News: Top 10 Unreliable Narrators
2009: Temporary Hiatus