I’m not at all sure how to categorise this. There are elements of steampunk, there’s alchemy, there’s a fairly standard form of elemental magic and there’s a fair dose of science in the mix as well. I don’t know whether it’s intended as YA, but the protagonists are fifteen and there’s nothing that would trouble a reader of that age, although some of the ‘experiments’ are a little gruesome. There’s an interesting premise - one of the main characters, Aaron, is a sorcerer’s apprentice, but unlike the usual such character, he’s a scientist, using logic and scientific knowledge to investigate effects related to his master’s work. Less radically, the second main character, Shanna, is apprenticed to a soap-maker, but on the side is also a thief and scavenger. Then there is the intriguing idea of the fifth element, in addition to the usual earth, air, fire and water.
The opening is a little wobbly. We see the two main characters in their environment, and they’re both very likeable, but some of the events seem a little forced. Would the ogre really toss the head sorcerer’s apprentice over the cliff-edge? Is there no justice system which would step in, this being (apparently) a well-ordered city? Would Shanna really be able to push the ogre over so easily? But even so, I liked the relationship between Shanna and Aaron.
Shortly after this, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly we’re hurled into a breathless rush of dramatic, page-turning action. Many books don’t reach this level of intensity before the finale, but here it works perfectly to rip the main characters out of their setting in the most natural way possible, while raising any number of questions about what is going on. Neatly sidestepping the conventional gang-on-a-quest setup, the two main characters are separated and have to make their own way through their post-apocalypse world, and end up on different sides, which is an interesting twist on things. And although there is a quest, Aaron and Shanna are simply sucked into someone else's plans. This part of the book, the events at Norwynne, is terrific.
From then onwards, the pace is rapid and there’s a dizzying array of twists and turns, to the point that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, or who was a good guy and who was a villain, almost to the end. Virtually all the characters have depth and behave believably. Aaron in particular is a terrific character, both immature yet intelligent and enterprising, perfectly aligned with his age. I absolutely loved his ability to approach any problem in a logical, scientific way, and find a rational solution. This is so refreshing in fantasy, which all too often turns to magic at such moments. Shanna I found less interesting, a bit too sulky and short on initiative, and not always terribly bright. Amongst the other characters, the dwarf and the savant both stood out. The mysterious Ensel Rhe worked less well, I feel. His backstory seemed a little contrived to get the reader’s sympathy, and he had an all too convenient knack of turning up in the nick of time to effect a rescue (not always successfully, it has to be said). The magic system is fairly simplistic, but the rest of the world-building is fascinating, with an array of (I suppose) steampunk additives for flavour. I loved all the various machines, even if the descriptions sounded a bit hokum.
The book could do with a final polishing edit, with a few mistakes and clunky moments, but otherwise the writing is excellent, perfectly judged to carry the plot without being intrusive. I particularly liked the author’s economical descriptions, which convey a great deal of evocative information in the minimum number of words. There were a couple of places where a character jumped to the right answer rather easily, which felt a little convenient, but there was enough foreshadowing to get away with it. The ending is appropriately grandiose and with unexpectedly thoughtful undertones. The author is to be commended for not taking the easy way out at this point. Overall, I totally enjoyed this, and tore through it at high speed - that just-one-more-chapter syndrome. It’s an unusual, pacy story, with an unexpected plot-twist in almost every chapter, and great fun to read. Four stars.