The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson. (Grades 7+)
I don't know if I can do this book justice with a summary, but I'll try. :) Also, the last half of this post may contain some spoilers, so be warned!
It's 1938 in an alternate history in which Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo and Europe is now united and on the brink of war with Scotland and the other countries in the Hanseatic League. Fifteen-year-old Sophie is just trying to make it through. She has a fairly mortifying crush on her chemistry professor and hopes to go to university if she passes her exams. She lives with her great-aunt Tabitha who often holds seances and it's through one of these seances that she meets Mrs. Tansy, a medium who delivers a chilling warning to Sophie. When Mrs. Tansy is murdered, Sophie is determined to find out who killed her. As she uncovers more information, Sophie suddenly finds herself swept up in a terrifying political plot and she might be the only thing that stands between her country and a war to end all wars.
Okay, I loved this book. Sophie pretty much had me at hello. I loved her from the first chapter. And every time I felt a little bogged down with trying to puzzle out this alternative world, some new little factoid or invention would pop up and suck me right back into the story. Seriously, I found this alternative world fascinating.
There's been a little debate on the sci-fi verses fantasy thing. I'm talking about this review at Tor and Colleen's counter. When I was reading Colleen's post, I disagreed with her about some things. I mean, talking to dead people is fantasy. Call me a non-believer. Fine. But communing with the spirits is not science fiction. It's fantasy. But once I finished the book and thought about it a bit, I started to come around. I mean... in this world technology exists that did not exist in our 1938. So... why not a way to harness the energy of the spirit? I still think it's fantasy when you're talking about our world, but in this alternate historical world... I can suspend my disbelief and buy it.
And also (perhaps more to the point), I don't happen to care if it's sci-fi or if it's fantasy. I don't feel the need to put this book into a neat little genre box. It was a great story. 'Nuf said.
(And oh, this next part is going to contain some spoilers, so please read at your own risk.)
The bigger problem I had with it (and "problem" is a relative term because overall I just really loved the book) was the subplot of the IRYLNS and how it fit into the book as a whole. I loved the creepy IRYLNS bits, but I kept looking for more of a connection between the IRYLNS bits and the political intrigue/murder investigation that was going on. It felt a little bit like two separate books and it would have been great if they had come together more.
But the more I think about it, the less problem I have with it. I only hope that we'll get more info about IRYLNS in the sequel. I loved the question of how far these young ladies were willing to go to serve their country - would they sacrifice their lives? Would they sacrifice their friends' lives? I love that the feminist great-aunt Tabitha is such a staunch supporter, when it seems quite obvious (to modern eyes at least) that it's so blatantly sexist. I loved that Sophie had her mind so made up about IRYLNS, but she keeps getting new information that flips her opinion back and forth.
So. Yeah. Um.. go read it. I'll leave you with a few last words to convince you. They are totally Colleen's words because I think she summed it up perfectly: "This is sweeping historic fiction about a girl who uncovers horrifying truths on both a personal and political level and must save both herself and her country."
The Explosionist is a finalist in the Cybils' YA Fantasy/Sci-Fi category. You can find more reviews at Charlotte's Library, Bookslut, Bookworm 4 Life, and Teen Book Review.