SYNOPSIS: The Electrical Menagerie, one-of-a-kind robotic roadshow, is bankrupt. Illusionist and engineer Sylvester Carthage has the eccentric imagination the Menagerie needs to succeed creatively — but none of the people skills. Fast-talking Arbrook Huxley, young and newly estranged from a lavish upbringing, has all the savvy the Menagerie needs to succeed commercially — but none of the scruples.
To save their show, these producers risk everything in a royal talent competition, vying for the once-in-a-lifetime chance to perform for the Future Celestial Queen. But real conspiracy lurks beneath contest controversy, and there’s more at stake than just the prize. Behind the glittery haze of flashpaper and mirrors, every competitor has something to hide — and it’s the secrets Carthage and Huxley keep from each other that may cost them their lives.
The Electrical Menagerie is difficult to classify–in an awesome way. It doesn't fit perfectly into the sci-fi or fantasy genres, but instead bridges the two. It's set in a rich and captivating universe with many steampunk elements–though “steampunk” is too simplistic a term to fully describe it. It's a realm of flat islands floating in space, stars that orbit the “earth,” and mechanical wonders that border on the magical. All that was enough to suck me in right from the outset, but even the most fascinating fictional universes aren't enough to make a story work if the characters aren't engaging enough. Fortunately, The Electrical Menagerie does not have this problem.
At the center of the tale are showman/inventor Sylvester Carthage and his manager, Arbrook Huxley. There's a refreshingly unique friendship between them. Though Carthage is a child at heart, hungry for wonder and adventure but occasionally hampered by social anxiety, he's the older member of the duo (middle-aged, to be more precise). Huxley is in his twenties, but he has a gruff, practical nature. Both characters are fleshed out in detail right from the start, and their fun, frequently-hilarious dynamic makes the book a joy to read. (There's a lot of laugh-out-loud, Pratchett-esque humor in between the more suspenseful moments.)
The peripheral characters are excellent as well…and here's where I'm forced to become vague, because there's a truly brilliant mystery woven into this story that should definitely not be spoiled. I don't think I can say much about the supporting cast without letting details slip. Suffice it to say that all the characterization is excellent–and that Ms. Reeder has a unique talent for nailing a mystery. I usually guess the solution to such storylines well before the end, but the truth behind the “accidents” plaguing the contest Carthage and Huxley enter took me completely by surprise. At the same time, however, it made perfect sense, and set up a conclusion that was both thrilling and satisfying. The ending leaves plenty of room for future stories, but it's not a cliffhanger. The book feels like a complete, stand-alone story. At the same time, however, you'll be eager to read more of the adventures of Carthage and Huxley once you've finished. (Fortunately, more are on the way!)
So, going down the list–amazing storyworld, delightful characters, and mind-blowing mystery. Are you excited yet?
The Electrical Menagerie is one of the most enjoyable books I've read in a long time. Mollie Reeder is definitely an author to keep on your radar. She's created the kind of universe and characters that fandoms are built on. Don't miss out–you owe it to yourself to get in on The Celestial Isles.