May 11, 2017
(+++) BAD GIRLS
Electric Empire #3: The Dastardly Miss Lizzie. By Viola Carr. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
The Summer of Bad Ideas. By Kiera Stewart. Harper. $16.99.
The finale of The Electric Empire trilogy wraps things up pretty neatly even though it never quite fulfills the promise of the first book, The Diabolical Miss Hyde. That book set forth the series’ intriguing premise, in which Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll had a daughter with the same deeply split personality – and she lived in an alternative universe within the steampunk genre. Feminism plus steampunk made for a heady start to the series that was not fully carried through in the second book, The Devious Dr. Jekyll. Nor is the rather lumbering (at first) third novel at quite as high a level as the series starter. The Dastardly Miss Lizzie is a 450-page book with about 200 really exciting pages at the end – the problem is wading through the earlier material to get there. Most of the book is told from the viewpoint of Eliza Jekyll, who has become a less-interesting character as the series has gone on. Hypocritical and repressive of the increasingly powerful, capricious and ever-more-interesting Lizzie Hyde, Eliza here operates in a world filled with whiffs of H.G. Wells. Eliza is a crime-scene physician, and in this book she is trying to figure out links among several inventors who have been gruesomely murdered. So far, so good. But Viola Carr goes considerably farther. There is a Soho Slasher here, an obvious echo of Jack the Ripper, who is killing prostitutes and who may, just may, turn out to be Eliza’s father, Edward Hyde. There is also royal intrigue and a threat of French terrorists, elements that lead to extended and exceptionally dull dialogue about politics between Eliza and her fiancé, lycanthrope and Royal Society agent Remy Lafayette – the names and events in these scenes have little to no bearing on the primary plot line. The Dastardly Miss Lizzie is the most complicated book of this trilogy and the most unwieldy, offering multiple twists as it casts its net widely before eventually tying things up very neatly (although very bloodily) in those final fast-paced and well-written pages. Carr again does a nice job with the atmospheric scene-setting, and the increasing tension between Eliza and Lizzie is handled well. But there is just too much packed into The Dastardly Miss Lizzie for the book to hold together well. For example, there are some important revelations about Remy – but they occur while he is away. Indeed, Remy remains something of a cardboard character, which is scarcely surprising in a novel of this type but is disappointing because Carr has shown in this trilogy that she can give characters depth when she so chooses. Ultimately, The Dastardly Miss Lizzie provides a satisfying series conclusion for readers who enjoyed the first two books and can push themselves through the sluggish pace of the early part of this one. The eventual wrapup does not disappoint, but the journey to it is less involving than it could be.
In a sense, The Electric Empire trilogy is a version for adults of the “who am I really?” stories that pervade books for preteens and young teenagers. Building on Stevenson and Wells gives Carr’s work a less formulaic feeling than books for younger readers that come across as if they were constructed primarily on other books for the same age group. A typical example is Kiera Stewart’s The Summer of Bad Ideas. It is an unexceptional story of friendship and of finding oneself during an adventurous summer. The protagonist, Edith (who prefers to be called Edie), has heard herself described as boring at a recent social event. She has an overprotective mother and a father who thinks he is so cool – in other words, the usual feckless and unaware parents. And she has precocious twin younger siblings who are geniuses – in other words, the usual “better-than-me” characters to whom the protagonist gets to compare herself. On top of that, Edie has a cousin named Rae who is genuinely cool, whom she meets at their recently deceased grandmother’s home in Florida, which the families need to clean up and clean out. The grandmother, Petunia, turns out to have been eccentric and a bit of a local legend – in other words, another character cooler than Edie. Obviously Edie has to do something to assert herself, and she finds a route to that through a list of “good ideas for summertime” that Petunia wrote when she was Edie’s and Rae’s age. Really, these are bad ideas by Edie’s standards, since all are adventurous, and some are stunts that may even be dangerous or at least scary (“catch a snake bare-handed”). So the question is: will Edie use these “bad ideas” to find out more about who she really is and to create a place for herself in the family and away from the description of “boring”? The answer, completely unsurprisingly, is yes. But if there is nothing the slightest bit unusual in this come-of-age-and-out-of-your-shell story (which even includes a touch of age-appropriate romance), it at least has engaging elements: both Edie and Rae are likable, in different ways, and there is a slight touch of reality in having the Florida trip result from the death of a grandparent – for some reason, books for preteens tend unrealistically to feature dead parents and siblings rather than deceased grandparents. Stewart writes nicely for her intended audience, if not especially stylishly, and the book is well-paced and will likely appeal to girls in the 8-12 age group (it is clearly aimed at girls, not boys). Although ultimately forgettable, The Summer of Bad Ideas has enough interesting elements as it runs its course to make it a pleasant read – one that may be especially appropriate as a summertime “escape” book.