Review: Haywired by Alex Keller

haywired alex keller 187x300 Review: Haywired by Alex Keller

Like cyberpunk, steampunk is a genre that draws heavily on aesthetics. But unlike the stark boldness of cyberpunk, with its mirrored lenses, PVC outfits, neon lighting and technophile patois, steampunk is something a little warmer, a little more familiar and romantic. Its Jane Austen meets Jules Verne meets Henry Ford and, with its fondness for foppishness and frippery, its obsession with showing us the innards of computing devices, its revival of bartitsu as a martial art, and its apparent fascination with cults and sea creatures, has become quite the trend du jour.

While steampunk first managed a sort of subsistence living in the work of authors such as M John Harrison, its now well on its way to being a developed and world-dominant nation. If youve not come across authors such as China Mieville, Philip Reeve, or Cherie Priest, or youve not watched some of the fine films by Hiyao Miyazaki, then youve no doubt at least come across the odd chap sporting some serious moustaches and a staggeringly heavy pocket watch (which likely does double time as a mobile phone).

Its into this glorious world of nostalgia that debut novelist Alex Keller leaps with Haywired, a work that immediately evokes the well-known anime feature The Iron Giant and the similarly popular series Full-Metal Alchemist. The setting of Haywired is one that combines the thatched roofed cottages, robustly figured maids and sweeping forests of the brothers Grimm with the stunning brass concoctions of Fritz Langs Metropolis with the harrowing paranoia of 1984. Its a glorious setting, and one thats ripe for all manner of literary shenanigans, and youll be pleased to hear that in true steampunk style Keller doesnt hold back.

Our protagonist is the mumblingly named Ludwig von Guggenstein, a young boy who spends his otherwise empty days helping to test and develop his fathers strange but captivating inventions. Despite his gung-ho attitude towards his work, Ludwigs isolation is palpable: his closest confidante is Mr Shawlworth, his fathers gardener, who plays a rather more paternal role than Ludwigs criminally absent and uninterested father. But through a series of most curious (and yes, unfortunate) events, Ludwig comes to learn that perhaps he is not as alone in the world as he has for so long supposed. Of course, in his journey towards this epiphany, Ludwig happens across not a few painful truths that leave him feeling rather more alienated than his previous ignorance had allowed.

And thus, Ludwig finds himself on the run with one Hephaestus, a boy of metal whose identity I shant reveal (but no, its not the well-known mythical Greek figure, although Kellers nod is indeed quite fun). But as such flights go, its not a simple one: rather its beset by kidnappings, carnival troupes, impending wars, homicidal robots, long voyages, mad scientists, and all manner of betrayal and intrigue. Keller has the stamina of a marathon runner but the pace of a sprinter: theres nary a dull moment in this book, but he still manages to sketch out all manner of well-rounded individuals, all of whom stand apart from each other and who play meaningful roles in the book, and gives us quite a feel for his Bavaria-gone-wild world.

Kellers audience is largely the middle years set, but like any good middle grade novel, the book deals with complex and deep themes in a way that allows for further reader engagement but that never crosses over into being didactic. Like Adrienne Kresss excellent Alex and the Ironic Gentleman (see my review), Haywired contains some fairly dark elements that are dealt with admirably. Of these, its difficult not to highlight notions such as the futility of war, the pat and patronising nature of colonial exploration, and the alienation and dysfunction of familial life, although these are of course but a few.

Despite a few prose-level inconsistencies, a climax and denouement that felt somewhat compressed (this is perhaps due to the fact that Haywired is the first in a potential trilogy), and a serious dearth of female characters,'Haywired is an excellent outing for a debut author. It nestles perfectly amidst the legacies of all of the fabulous books and films mentioned earlier, and given its breezy yet snappy style and full-throttle plot, I cant help but feel that it has plenty of success coming its way.

Rating: ?????

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With thanks to Mogzilla books for the review copy.

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