Sunday, July 1, 2012

The Dead Gentleman: My Thoughts

Several months ago I won a competition (sponsored by the lovely Kate Testerman, @DaphneUn on Twitter) to receive a signed copy of The Dead Gentleman by Matthew Cody (@matthew_cody). I was drawn to the contest by the description of the book as "an exciting time travel tale" in which the characters are seen "shuttling among worlds, times, and points of view". I love time travel and I'm always intrigued by shifting perspectives in a story, and The Dead Gentleman lived up to its description on both points.

I didn't bother to summarize the plot of TFiOS in my previous post because I figured anyone who would be reading my blog would have read it already, but more of you may be unfamiliar with this book so I'll bring you up to speed. The Dead Gentleman is the story of Tommy, a homeless orphan from the turn of the 20th century, and Jezebel, who lives with her divorced father in the present day, teaming up to stop the Dead Gentleman, a villain who transcends time. In the process of trying to defeat him, they travel across hundreds of years and back again, through various places on earth as we know it as well as other worlds. Along the way they meet giant spider-monsters, fiends that live in closets and under beds, a kraken, a shape-shifter, immortal monks with "longish earlobes and cow's tails", dinosaurs, and a three-armed simian species that can shape stone at will. As if that weren't enough, the Dead Gentleman and his crew are essentially zombies, but they're some of the most interesting, individualized zombies that I've ever imagined. And the real hero and central figure in the book is a mechanical bird named Merlin who has more soul than the human protagonists in many a lesser story. It's an amazingly diverse lineup of creatures by any accounting.

Despite my initial interest generated by the aforementioned blurb, I have to confess that I was a bit wary about this book. I read some science fiction/fantasy but it isn't usually my first choice of genre, and I'm pretty picky about young adult and middle grade literature too. But I enjoyed The Dead Gentleman a lot more than I expected. A lot more. It drew me in from the first chapter and I was almost immediately invested in what was happening to Tommy and Jezebel. They're great characters: vulnerable to fear and confusion, yet tough and smart and able to do what they have to do to make things right. They're smart and engaging and the reader can't help but get behind them.

Speaking of great characters, the Dead Gentleman himself is simply terrifying. He is undead and immortal and pure, utter evil. I don't want to give too much away but suffice to say that the end result of his goal in the universe would literally be one of my greatest nightmares. His entire crew is also undead, but they're not the usual homogeneous group of random creepy guys. The reader is introduced to several of them individually and every one of them has his own personality and motivations. None of them is nearly as scary as the Gentleman himself, and one in particular is right on the verge of being kind of comical, but it's still a super-creepy villainous crew!

I also loved the steampunk technology that featured prominently in the book. In addition to Merlin, Tommy has "night vision" goggles, a stun-gun-esque weapon called a Tesla stick, and the incredibly destructive mayfly, a grenade-like weapon. Through much of the book, he travels with a mentor named Captain Scott aboard a "submarine" called the Nautilus while, in contrast, the Dead Gentleman's ship, the Charnel House, is more like a zeppelin. Both ships are like something straight out of a Jules Verne story. The characters view different points in time through a device called the Cycloidotrope and they actually pass through both time and space by using a variety of portals. The Cycloidotrope and portals are perhaps my favorite of the devices because time travel is so fascinating to me. And yet, although the plot relies so heavily on time travel, much of the time travel that occurs is almost accidental and I liked the unexpected nature of it. In any case, like Cody's creatures, the fantastic devices used in The Dead Gentleman comprise a long and incredibly diverse group, and every one of them is a tantalizing blend of futuristic abilities with 18th century mechanics.

Possibly my favorite thing of all about The Dead Gentleman was Cody's use of shifting perspectives in his writing. Chapters that focus on Tommy are written in the first person, with Tommy narrating. Other chapters are written in the third person, and there is one chapter in which the perspective shifts quickly back and forth between Tommy and Jezebel. Furthermore, the action often shifts among different time frames without being explicitly stated in the text, except in easy-to-skip-over chapter headings. So in one chapter, for example, Tommy is narrating in 1902 and in the next he's talking about events that happened in 1900. Both chapters are written in past tense, so it's mostly just subtle textual clues that alert the reader to the change. I thought this was a remarkably nuanced and sophisticated way to write a story for the middle grades and I applaud Cody for it.

This does, however, lead directly into the first of only two complaints that I had about the story: In my opinion, some of the events and contrivances in The Dead Gentleman seem a bit too convenient, a bit deus ex machina. It rubbed me the wrong way here and there, but I'm trying to keep an open mind because it occurs to me that fantasy literature in general relies a lot more heavily on deus ex machina devices than does the literary fiction with which I'm more accustomed. In addition, it's been many years since I read middle grade fiction so it's easy to forget, but obviously younger readers would need a slightly more obvious plotline than those found in some adult fiction. I say that with no disrespect to young readers; I was one myself once and I'm thankful for the books that made me what I am today. I'm merely saying that we crawl before we walk, and younger brains need to learn how plots work before they can learn how to follow a very complex one.

My only other complaint relates to characterization. I realize it isn't central to the story, but I wish there had been a bit more set up regarding Jezebel's relationship with her parents, and maybe also with the people in the hotel. There obviously isn't a lot to say about Tommy's background, given his street-orphan status, but I feel like Jezebel is unnecessarily almost as much of an enigma as he is. There is a bit of a side plot regarding a friend who thinks Jezebel is jealous of her boyfriend but I honestly didn't think that was as useful as more information about Jezebel's background would have been. On the other hand, this is the first of a planned series of books, so it's entirely possible that these loose ends will be tied up more and more as the story proceeds. Again, I'm keeping an open mind.

So yeah. A really good middle grade fantasy thriller. Not something I would ever have expected to find on my shelf if you'd asked me a year ago, and certainly not something I would have expected to enjoy. And as a bonus it has beautiful cover art (as you can see above) and the author is SUPER nice (check him out on Twitter and see for yourself). I can even imagine reading this one again at some point, and that's not something I do very often with any book. If you or your kids like fantasy at all, and especially if you like time travel and/or steampunk, I highly recommend The Dead Gentleman.

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