The Explosionist

by Jenny Davidson

Fifteen-year-old Sophie lives in Edinburgh, Scotland in the 1930s, but Sophie’s Scotland is much different from the 1930s Scotland found in our text books.  In Sophie’s world, England lost the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 and the northern countries banded together to form the New Hanseatic League.  Sophie’s Scotland is dealing with suicide bombers who are thought to be related to a group called the Brothers of the Northern Liberties but the truth behind the bombings may be a bit more sinister than that.  When a bombing happens close to Sophie’s school, Sophie becomes more interested in who is in charge of the bombings, especially when her classmates begin to suspect Sophie’s beloved teacher, Mr. Peterson.  Bombings aren’t the only thing Sophie has to worry about.  A medium forewarns Sophie of a terrible danger that is heading her way and not long after the premonition, the medium is found murdered.  Is their a connection between the medium’s warning to Sophie and her death?  On top of all this, Sophie is concerned that her future aspirations of going to college will be dashed when she is sent to IRLYNS (the Institution for the Recruitment of Young Ladies for National Security), a supposedly prestigious group of young women groomed to be the best secretaries for high-up male officials.  Sophie learns that there is something horrible happening at IRLYNS but she has been sworn to secrecy with her life on the line if she tells.  How will she save herself and her friends from IRLYNS clutches?  Sophie’s life is about to be turned upside-down.  With the help of her friend Mikael, will Sophie be able to get to the bottom of all the horrible things happening to her country before its too late?  Sophie is forced to make some tough decisions in her fight to help protect her country and for her own survival.

Reaction: The Explosionist covers a lot of territory.  It was very hard to write a summary because so many different things are going on.  I really enjoyed the alternative history aspect of the book.  I think I would have enjoyed it more if I knew more about the true history but the concept was creative and well done.  I did think some of the writing was a bit shaky.  My biggest complaint was with the ending.  I thought it was rushed and wrapped up a bit too easily, despite the open-ended nature.  Also, there were several moments where I felt I was told not shown.  One major example of this is when Sophie finally realizes her feelings for Mikael.

All that being said, I think this would make a truly awesome book club book if you have a mature group of book club members because there are so many issues covered in the book that are relevant to the present day, specifically regarding what the possibility of going to war because of false information or pretenses (much like Bush and the whole WMD thing), the effect of war on the soldiers–how do soldiers really feel about the wars they are fighting–and what is an acceptable price to pay for “the good of the country” and where does one draw the line?  Plus, I think it could bring up lots of great discussions about what the world would be like if other major events had happened differently.  For example, in the book the United States is two countries because the south won the war.  What would it be like now if this had happened?  How long would it have taken for slavery to have been abolished in the south?  Or would it have been abolished yet?  And what would the north be like with out its attachment to the south?

Here is one particular passage that caught my eye.  The background is Mr. Peterson, the beloved teacher, is babbling while teaching Sophie how to drive to keep them both distracted from her inexperience:

“Most motorcars in Scotland are powered by fuel cells.  A fuel cell is similar to a battery, except that whereas batteries run down, you can keep fuel cells going indefinitely by pumping in more chemicals.  Thomas Edison invented this particular version in the 1880s; you put in hydrogen and oxygen, and the cell converts them into electricity, the only by-product being perfectly pure drinking water…

Ironically, given that Edison was an American, his invention never really caught on over there.  You’ll find a few fuel-cell enthusiasts in the Americas, of course, but most of their motorcars are powered by a filthy and wasteful method called internal combustion.  All very well if you’re an American sitting on top of huge petroleum reserves, but that kind of reckless consumption doesn’t suggest a very sensible attitude toward the future!” (pg 133)

So many things could be discussed from this passage alone.  It also reminded me that I forgot to say that many famous people are mentioned throughout the novel, such as Edison.

In the end, this book’s best quality is its ability to make you think and question.  While I wasn’t in love with the writing and it took me awhile to really get into the book, I am still eagerly awaiting the next book in the series to see what Davidson concocts.

What’s Next: Sequels, possibly a trilogy.  I’ve heard many things but have not found concrete evidence on my own.  Check out Jenny Davidson’s blog for (hopefully) more information.

Phew.  It took me longer to post on this book (10 days) than it took me to read it!