September 16, 2021


City of Secrets. By Victoria Ying. Color assistant: Undram Ankhbayar. Viking. $14.99.

City of Illusion. By Victoria Ying. Colorist: Lynette Wong. Viking. $14.99.

     The inherent absurdity of steampunk is a huge part of its charm and attraction. By using Victorian-style technology (gears, wheels and, of course, steam) and, in most cases, Victorian-style clothing and architecture, then incorporating traditional science-fictional tropes such as airships and robots, authors of books in steampunk mode get to pick and choose among an exceptionally wide variety of nonsensical combinations that, in context, make perfect sense. Steampunk is essentially an extension of the imaginings of H.G. Wells, who envisioned time travel using Victorian equipment – but while Wells tried to project his concepts into a future that he could scarcely imagine, steampunk creators are in that future already, and they project backwards into the appurtenances of times past while being fully cognizant of modern technology and potential future developments. Wells’ works were most definitely science fiction; steampunk is much closer to fantasy in its assumption that technology and societal arrangements somehow stalled in the 19th century or early 20th, while the ability to communicate, travel and (above all) have adventures moved onward in Victorian/Edwardian garments (both figuratively and literally).

     Victoria Ying’s paired graphic novels, City of Secrets and City of Illusion, are particularly adept at exploring the steampunk genre while keeping readers firmly focused on preteen adventure and the slow unraveling of mysteries within the context of (mostly mild) danger. The protagonists are an upper-crust girl named Hannah and an orphaned “street rat” named Ever – who, over the course of the first book, find out that they have a great deal more in common than their mutual taste for adventure. Actually, Hannah’s adventurousness is stronger: she is a proto-feminist, reacting to her mother’s horrified comment that “no proper girl would ever wear trousers” by saying, “Maybe I’m not a proper girl! Maybe I don’t want to be one!” Of course it turns out that her mother is not exactly a proper upper-class woman after all, but that revelation occurs only at the end of City of Secrets. Most of the book revolves around the growing friendship between Hannah and Ever, and Ever’s attempts to deflect deadly attention from himself while keeping a secret given to him by his father before his dad was killed by a dastardly ring of Dickensian villains, one of whom looks much like Uriah Heep and laments to a fellow baddie that “I woulda ’ad one less strike against me” by eliminating Ever.

     What is particularly clever in City of Secrets is the centrality to the story of the Switchboard Operating Facility, where women use old-fashioned plugs and cords to interconnect people who wish to speak with each other – that is, this is the headquarters of the telephone company in the days long before automatic switching, when you would call an operator who would then connect you manually to your desired phone number. This fits the steampunk ethos beautifully, and when Ying shows a cutaway view of the six-level facility (three floors and three basements), the appearance of a setting of gears, wheels, staircases, and levers galore makes it clear that this building is more than it appears.

     And of course it is, just as Hannah and Ever are more than they appear – in the grand tradition of pretty much every fantasy adventure in pretty much every tradition. The mystery elements in City of Secrets involve competing cabals, the usual good-vs.-evil standoff, and incipient warfare between the protagonists’ city, called Oskars, and the nearby city of Edmonda (these are more like city-states). The secrets are a touch too pervasive – for instance, before he is killed, Ever’s father reveals just enough of a super-crucial piece of information to whet Ever’s appetite, but not enough for Ever to protect himself when events spiral out of control. Eventually, Ever accepts help from Hannah (he has little choice, having been wounded and rendered unconscious); the two of them discover they have a great deal in common; and together they uncover the biggest secret of all – just in time to save Oskars from incoming missiles fired by the chief villain, who is the ruler of Edmonda. The giant gears-and-brass-plates robot that Hannah and Ever fly (it only works if they control it together, of course) fits the steampunk universe perfectly, although, in one of the few remarks here that do not fit Ying’s otherwise careful construction very well, Hannah makes a reference to a weapon that comes out of nowhere: “Laser zappers?!”

     The one element of City of Secrets that does not quite work is the color, provided by Undram Ankhbayar. Most of the book is simply drab – lots of browns and greys – and while this certainly works for nighttime scenes and others requiring atmospheric presentation, it becomes a little too much through the course of the book, to such an extent that occasional touches of brightness (such as the red dress that Hannah wears for a while) seem discordant. The color work by Lynette Wong in City of Illusion is much better, giving characters more individuality and even enlivening the presentation of multiple mechanical constructs. City of Illusion is not a standalone book – there is no recap of its predecessor, and the many passing references to earlier events will make no sense at all to anybody who has not read City of Secrets. What City of Illusion does is to expand and extend the first book’s story: now that the big secret involving robotic protection of Oskars has been revealed, and the chief bad guy (whose name is Vash) has been defeated, it turns out that there is a third city (or city-state), called Alexios, and that is where Hannah and Ever go on the inevitable-in-steampunk airship. Here they meet more preteens with secrets, worries and better-than-adult perception; and here Vash appears as puppet master, manipulating adults and kids alike in a typical-for-fantasy quest for power for its own sake (his position as the leader of a single city-state clearly not being enough for him). Various adult characters from the first book reappear here in expanded roles, but the main story arc involves the kids from different places gradually setting aside mutual mistrust and discovering that they can do remarkable things when they work together. In fact, they have to work together to overcome Vash, who in this book has harnessed out-and-out magic.

     The use of magic melds a bit uneasily with the steampunk model: City of Illusion does have sleight-of-hand and apparently magical comings and goings throughout, but when real magic suddenly appears, then proves central to the plot, the effect is rather jarring. This is Ying’s world, of course, and she can do whatever she wishes with it and in it. And it is possible that she will create a third book about Hannah and Ever that will explore the “magic” angle more fully – although City of Illusion ends wholly satisfactorily, with all three cities saved and Vash captured and imprisoned, so a followup is scarcely necessary. In fact, City of Illusion concludes with the words “The End,” which City of Secrets did not, so perhaps Ying has had enough of this particular steampunk (or steampunk-plus-magic) setting and is ready to move on. Given the skill with which she handles these two graphic novels, it will be worth following her to whatever world she may choose to go next.

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