The Choir Boats starts off Daniel A. Rabuzzi’s Longing for Yount, a new pre-steampunk fantasy series for young adults. Set in London, 1812, this novel follows the adventures of merchant Barnabas McDoon, his nephew Tom and niece Sally, and, far, far away, a mathematical genius named Maggie who recently escaped from slavery. The adventure begins when Barnabas receives in the post a key, a book, and an invitation to “find his heart’s desire” – which he immediately leaps upon but has hardly begun before enemies and intrigue crawl out of the woodwork.
An engrossing and fun-filled fantasy world
Daniel Rabuzzi’s London is everything you’ve ever dreamed of. In this world Sam and Frodo are historic facts, two great men who did that thing with the ring, and mentions of characters from Austen and the Horatio Hornblower series, among many others, drift in and out of the text with a warmth and familiarity that will make you smile. Rabuzzi’s historical knowledge is impressive and he weaves accurate information about the time period with completely believable information about Yount, a strange, endangered land that somehow lies parallel to the world of Barnabas McDoon.
Rabuzzi supports this charming world with a rich vocabulary of marvelously invented words, from terms like “fulgination” and “eudiometry” to character names like “the Cretched Man” and “Salmius Nalmius.” But never fear: even the foggiest word becomes clear in Rabuzzi’s witty prose, and his inventions just beg to be read aloud and chewed over. The book has a fantastic presentation, too, and Deborah Mills’ illustrations match the text’s mood wonderfully.
Classic and enjoyable writing
In the same vein (and era, for that matter) as Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series and Susanna Clarke’s Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Rabuzzi’s writing seems less of a modern creation and more as if it’s been pulled directly from 1812. His language is completely immersive, but at the same time he maintains a sort of buoyant good humor that makes clear why The Choir Boats is considered young adult fiction.
Occasionally the prose gets bogged in detail. Rabuzzi obviously revels in the world he’s created, but at times he revels a little too much. The details can be overwhelming. That said, I always found the setting and the characters interesting enough to make even these slower sections feel engaging, and despite the occasional overload of detail I was never tempted to put the book down; in fact, I could hardly put it down at all! For slower readers, though, or for those seeking a fast book to skim, Rabuzzi’s extravagant prose may prove daunting.
Believable characters with a spark of superhuman interest
Barnabas McDoon, the Cretched Man, Sally, Tom, and Maggie – don’t get me wrong, all of Rabuzzi’s characters are fully-realized and compelling. But they’re also all larger than life. The Choir Boats and its denizens never let you forget that the book is a work of fiction, a marvelous story, and the characters don’t feel like someone you know but rather someone you wish to know but are a little frightened of, too. It’s a refreshing change from today’s focus on hyper-realistic characters, and is also a distinctly YA move, though Rabuzzi never descends into farce or exaggeration.
Rabuzzi does an excellent job, too, of depicting the actual young adult characters. Tom and Sally have a perfectly believable sibling rivalry without coming across as contrived or binary. Sally in particular is a plausible young woman with all the insecurities and brilliance that comes with being eighteen, although Tom also comes into his own later in the book. Maggie remains an enigma throughout; facing her own problems and removed from the rest of the goings-on, Maggie is clearly important but by the end of The Choir Boats it’s still difficult to decide exactly how she fits into the rest of the story. That, I’m sure, will be revealed in A Tax From Heaven, the second book in the series.
Why should you read this book?
In my opinion, The Choir Boats is the most underrated young adult title of 2009, although it’s by no means limited to young readers. It’s a gorgeous and light-hearted story, chock-full of clever words, characters, surprises, and one truly spectacular twist at the end. If you’re seeking an engrossing and entirely unique world to sweep you off your feet, look no further. It’s not particularly fast-paced but it’s wonderful all the same: the perfect book to curl up with in the evening and read all night long.