Sunday, January 13, 2013

Review: Songs for a Machine Age by Heather McDougal

Songs for a Machine AgeSongs for a Machine Age by Heather McDougal
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wouldn't have read this book if I hadn't gotten it as a Christmas present. Not only did my father purchase it, but he also read it aloud, and gave me the mp3s to listen to. It certainly made for a memorable reading experience.

The book follows Elena Alkerson, who's on the run after having narrowly escaped a witchcraft conviction. She has the ability to see structural flaws, and to know what effect they'll have on the structures they're part of. With this gift comes the inability to keep her mouth shut about it, so many people think she's speaking curses when her predictions come true.

She meets Fen, a young man with a gift for mechanics, and who was burned by superstitious village folk. Fen is shy to the point of speechlessness around Elena, but opens up after they journey together to the capital city of Helseve, fleeing the Duke who's after Elena, and seeking a formal education in building machines.

I thought Fen's transformation a bit too quick. When he first meets Elena, he can't even talk, but soon he's walking in a Festival parade and completely unconcerned about his burn scars. I was under the impression the scars were prominent, but they become a non-issue in the second half of the book, which seemed inconsistent.

The plot is also very linear. Each complication is encountered, plotted about, and solved, successively. It took a lot of tension out of the narrative. The world doesn't seem to be a terribly complicated one; the threatened upheaval comes from one corrupt political power, and he doesn't seem to have allies, other than the ordinary folk who are working for him for reasons they don't even fully understand. The intervention of gods plays a part in his plot, but they seem fairly limited in power, and I'm not sure I understand why they choose to inspire the people they do.

The simplicity of the plot and some of the spoon-feeding of information made me think this was meant to be YA, at times. This wasn't helped at all by the strong reliance on father figures.

The book's major strengths lie in theme and characterization. Characters have good reasons for behaving the way they do within the story, and they all experience growth.

The themes are many. The book seems to speak out against both capitalism and socialism, favoring art and expression and equal opportunities to raise oneself up. It's also the most pacifist fantasy novel I've ever read; the evil in the book stems from building machines to hurt people. It also takes a strong anti-industrial stance, treating assembly line work as a horror to be avoided at all costs. Unfortunately, some of the themes were hammered in a bit too strongly; the evil Duke was a bit of a straw man.

Overall, though, the unique packaging of this Christmas present made it well worth it. I'm not sure if I could recommend the book to you if my father didn't read it out loud to you, or even yours. But, it's definitely one I'm going to hold onto for a long while.

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