Richard Harland’s Worldshaker is a dystopian steampunk adventure aimed at young adult readers. Although it is targeted at a younger audience, I found this novel to be an entertaining and worthwhile read that I finished in one sitting.
A steampunk coming of age story
Worldshaker tells the story of Col Porpentine, grandson of Sir Mormus Porpentine, Supreme Commander of the industrial juggernaut Worldshaker. Col lives a privileged yet sheltered life on the elite upper decks of the immense moving city while sub-human workers known as Filthies toil below. Chosen to succeed his grandfather one day and bring honor to his family, Col’s life seems to be on track. However, unbeknownst to him, his safe, stable world is doomed to fall apart when an escaped female Filthy chooses his cabin as a hiding place. Despite her wild appearance and lack of personal hygiene, the Filthy, called Riff, doesn’t seem that different from anyone else and, most shocking of all, she can speak! No matter how hard he tries, Col cannot escape the knowledge that life as he knows it is based on a lie. Furthermore, he hasn’t seen the last of the Filthies, and the events that follow will have him questioning everything he once believed in, both about his society, and himself .
A familiar tale with a refreshing twist
Combining elements of romance, satire and adventure, Worldshaker focuses on the relationship between the protagonists, Col and Riff, and Col’s resultant awakening to the rampant injustice within his society. While the concepts of star-crossed love and a challenge to an individual’s preconceived worldviews are hardly new to literature, Harland writes with such wit and humor that these familiar concepts feel fresh and exciting. He also adds his own surprising twists to the familiar tale, ranging from the inevitable to the downright bizarre.
Col and Riff are likeable yet believably flawed and are supported by a colorful cast of quirky secondary characters, each with their own unique charm. Undoubtedly some exist more for the sake of parody than others, drawing attention to various follies within society and human nature. Nevertheless, while they may initially seem more like humorous caricatures than real people, most develop greater depth as the story progresses, becoming much more relatable as a result. I also thought it was nice to see a Romeo and Juliet story where the traditional roles are reversed and Riff is the streetwise, kick-ass heroine and Col, while educated and intelligent, is comparatively naïve in the ways of the world. While Harland may not be the only writer to explore this variation on traditional gender roles, I thought it added another layer to the narrative and fit in well with the rest of the story.
A quirky world with plenty of surprises
Worldshaker’s setting is unique and fascinating despite the fact that the story takes place entirely within the self contained world of the industrial behemoth. The upper decks are populated by stuffy upper-class English society with stiff manners and a rigid social class system. In contrast, the lower decks are a perilous wasteland of coal, machinery and furnaces where a single slip could cost one their life. We are also given some intriguing hints as to the history of Harland’s world and the existence of similar moving cities, manned by the populations of different developed countries. Overall, I was left with a strong desire to learn more about the world outside Worldshaker which, without giving away too much, happily features more prominently in the sequel Liberator. Readers who prefer all aspects worldbuilding to be backed up with scientific explanation may be in for an unpleasant surprise, but those willing to suspend disbelief and have a bit of fun will enjoy the quirky humor and sharp, slightly satirical wit. Much like the maze of hidden compartments and secret rooms that characterize Harland’s juggernaut, the story itself contains some genuine surprises. The plot itself is not shy in taking unforeseen directions, and characters you thought you knew frequently reveal new aspects of their personalities, both for the better and the worse.
On a slightly darker note…
Don’t make the mistake, however, of thinking that Worldshaker is nothing but a lighthearted romp. There are more serious concepts explored and darker moments throughout the novel. Themes of betrayal, prejudice, revolution and oppression underlie the plot and even the more humorous parts of the novel have a slightly darker edge than you might find in most books aimed at a similar age group.
Why should you read this book?
I recommend Worldshaker to anyone with an interest in the steampunk genre, anyone who enjoys quirky stories with a healthy dose of humor, and more conventional fantasy fans looking for a change of pace. While the plot may seem a little simple for some older readers, I believe the unique writing style and wit provide adequate compensation. I definitely consider Worldshaker a worthwhile read; and the sequel Liberator, which I read immediately after, is even better.