Review: Worldshaker, by Richard Harland

worldshaker

(Allen & Unwin, 2009: ISBN 978-1-74175-709-5)

(review first published on the now-demised Specusphere website, April 2009)

Already the winner of two Aurealis awards (for his children’s series Wolf Kingdom quartet and the humorous adult horror novel The Black Crusade) Richard Harland has, in Worldshaker, come up with something quite different that might be his passport to international renown, as it has been bought for the American market.

Colbert Porpentine, grandson of Colbert Porpentine, grandson of Sir Mormus Porpentine, is destined to become the next Supreme Commander of Her Majesty Queen Victoria the Second’s juggernaut, “Worldshaker”. It’s a destiny of which Col himself has been ignorant until very recently, but he has been groomed for the position for pretty much all his young life, much to the pride of his doting grandmother Lady Ebnolia and his parents Orris and Quinnea – and the disgust of his elder sister Gillabeth, supremely confident and competent, but destined by the rules of male primogeniture to remain forever overshadowed by her bumbling, self-unaware younger brother. At least, that’s the plan. But you may have heard a saying concerning plans, men, and rodents …

The juggernauts of Worldshaker, Richard Harland’s new children’s/young adult novel (it’s pitched at ages 13 and up) are truly colossal steam-powered vehicles, of skyscraper height and greater than football-pitch lateral dimensions. Worldshaker and her siblings (rivals actually – the French have one, likewise the Russians) travel the world, essentially indifferent as to whether they are passing over land or sea, trading for their livelihood. Col has been born into a very privileged family, but it takes a chance encounter with a young Filthy called Riff (she’s 14 to Col’s 16) to begin to show him just how privileged has been his upbringing. The Filthies, living among the bilge, vented steam, food scraps and malevolent mechanical hazards of the juggernaut’s below-decks area, are the vehicle’s Untouchables, a mysterious subhuman race without language, learning, or morality. Only, as Col can’t help notice, Riff don’t seem too subhuman.

Worldshaker is a little slow to start (but then, I guess a certain amount of inertia is inevitable in such a large vehicle). For the first hundred pages, I was wondering whether Harland was attempting some kind of younger-generation steampunk take on Mervyn Peake’s gothic Gormenghast trilogy, and there are certainly similarities in terms of the deliberately antiquated setting, the importance of the enclosing, virtually all-encompassing artificial landscape, and the focus on the young male heir. But Harland’s world gradually asserts itself, and shows itself to be distinct from its influences. Col and Riff are memorable characters, and the interplay between them is engaging and convincing. In fact most of the major characters come across as properly three-dimensional, and there are some brilliant minor characters such as Col’s teacher, Mr Gibber, who is sublimely, awfully mad (holding forthright views on the theology of geometry, the morality of chemistry, and the ethics of spelling). The action is well-paced, with neither the level of violence nor the complexity of language placing the work beyond the reach of a 13-year-old. (In truth, I found the wording in some places lacked the degree of variety and subtlety I would have appreciated, but the comparatively muted vocabulary and the textual directness do not really harm the story, and may well be more appropriate for the target audience.)

There were some aspects of the story I found less than completely convincing: for example, the issue of buoyancy, as the vessel crosses from land to sea, is never addressed, and I felt that Col’s motives for participating in the book’s pivotal conflict were underexplored. (It’s true that for most of the narrative his allegiances are being tested, but I was unconvinced by the ease with which he accepts the necessity for bloodshed. I also didn’t fully buy into the positioning and representation of Sir Mormus as Col’s effective counterpoint – other adversaries, such as Col’s schoolyard competitors Hythe and Pugh Squellingham, are rather more effective in the role of antagonist. Overall, though, Worldshaker is a very readable and mildly provocative boiler-plated adventure story, with enough action and enough substance to serve as a very good introduction to steampunk.

(Just be sure to keep clear of the rollers, though. If the book has any two-dimensional characters, they’re the poor villagers who aren’t quick enough to move out of the juggernaut’s path.)

The author’s web site can be found at http://www.richardharland.net/ . He also runs a site for would-be writers, with 145 pages of writing tips, which you can find at http://www.writingtips.com.au/ . As a highly-regarded academic as well as a successful published author, Richard Harland is well placed to offer such instruction.

 

(Reviewed by Simon Petrie, 2009)

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2 responses

19 04 2014
Maree

isn’t the Filthy’s name Riff? agree with the review! I thought that the novel lacked vital emotion in some parts but overall it was a good read!

19 04 2014
simonpetrie

You’re right, of course. Thanks for the correction — and glad to hear that you liked the review. I should get around to reading ‘Liberator’ at some point, but … so many books …

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