Published by Clarion Books, Houghton Mifflin Company on August 25, 2015
Genres: fairy tale
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Nicolette’s awful stepsisters call her “Mechanica” to demean her, but the nickname fits: she learned to be an inventor at her mother’s knee. Her mom is gone now, though, and the Steps have turned her into a servant in her own home.
But on her sixteenth birthday, Nicolette discovers a secret workshop in the cellar and begins to dare to imagine a new life for herself. Could the mysterious books and tools hidden there—and the mechanical menagerie, led by a tiny metal horse named Jules—be the key to escaping her dreary existence? With a technological exposition and royal ball on the horizon, the timing might just be perfect for Nicolette to earn her freedom at last.
Gorgeous prose and themes of social justice and family shine in this richly imagined Cinderella retelling about an indomitable inventor who finds her prince . . . but realizes she doesn't want a fairy tale happy ending after all.
There is something so frustrating about a story that is so close to being satisfactory but doesn’t quite make it. Mechanica is a perfectly serviceable retelling, I imagine, but doesn’t have the emotional substance to make an impact. When I read a book I want to be swept away to another world, brought far from my own experiences, and caught up in the emotions of the characters. I don’t want “serviceable.”
Now, I haven’t read Cinder, but from what I could tell this really isn’t very similar. Whereas Cinder is a futuristic dystopian-ish (I think?), Mechanica has much more of a traditional fairy tale feel. Think: 18th century but with magic, fae, and some adorable steampunk creatures. Also, that book has a significant focus on the romance aspect of the story. This one…doesn’t (but more on that later).
I actually really enjoyed the first 20% or so of the book in which Nicolette relates to the reader the story of how she came to be a servant in her own parent’s home. Nicolette’s education in mechanical tinkering is interesting and the loss of her parents appropriately emotional. Most intriguing, though, was the foundation of a social justice story laid in the beginning. Fae and humans live alongside each other in this world, and used to live together, before the queen died from accidental overdose on a Fae remedy. Fae, magic, and all fae-related objects have been banished from the kingdom ever since. Families are broken up and divided. The Fae are systemically oppressed. And yet for all that it doesn’t ever really come to anything. Cornwell doesn’t do anything with this aspect of the story after the basic facts have been relayed. There aren’t any main characters who are Fae and there is no resolution to their oppression. Though View Spoiler »I suppose we’re supposed to infer that things will be different once Fin is king. It’s not really satisfactory, though. « Hide Spoiler
The book has good intentions, and it even delivers on some of them, but the story is so very boring that it’s hard to care. The writing style is actually quite charming and I enjoyed Nicolette and found her believable and relatable. It’s just that nothing happens for the majority of the book. For most of the novel Nicolette is in her workshop tinkering away on various projects (creating mechanical sewing machines, sewing dresses for the stepsisters, etc) and relating back to the reader any action that happens via her memories. It’s all tell, no show and it’s a very insular reading experience. We’re never really in the moment with her. It’s hard to emotionally connect. Time would pass and it would be mentioned as, “My blossoming friendships with Caro and Fin made me happier than I’d ever been.” But the reader wouldn’t see that blossoming themselves.
Now, Caro and Fin, the kindly merchants who help her sell her mechanical creations at market. It’s all very convenient but I can handwave that away when the story is interesting and relationships of substance are formed. It’s strange, I have never seen such a thing before, but this book has a case of insta-friendship. Nicolette meets Caro and Caro instantly adores her and writes her a 12 page letter the day they meet about how much she wants to be Nicolette’s friend. Nicolette herself does think this is all a bit odd, at least, but sort of just moves along and accepts the friendship. And Caro is perfectly nice and a genuine friend! It was just odd, especially combined with the fact that it’s all tell and no show. We don’t ever really see their friendship or understand why Caro was so instantly smitten.
And in turn Nicolette is instantly smitten with Fin. Quickly crushing on a cute boy is something I can forgive Nicolette for. I think it’s perfectly realistic 16 year old girl behavior. She does even admonish herself for so quickly crushing on someone she’s met twice and that in the same day. What I can’t get past is why I was ever supposed to care or feel attached. We don’t spend enough time with Fin to understand why Nicolette is crushing on him. We’re just told that she is. Honestly, I thought Nicolette and Caro had more chemistry! I would’ve been happy if they ran off together and in a story of beautiful lady love but sadly this was not to be.
There are things to admire here. The “ball” in this version is an Exposition where Nicolette plans to show off her creations and gain patronage. The goal isn’t romance with the prince, it’s freedom and independence from the “Steps” wrought by Nicolette’s own hard work. And there is an excellent trope subversion on the fairytale ending. In fact, the ending very nearly bumped this one up to a three: View Spoiler » Nicolette rejects the prince (who is Fin by the way in case there was any doubt)!! Fin offers her hand in marriage and she says no! Say whattttt. At the exposition Nicolette realizes that Fin and Caro are in love with each other and, wisely, doesn’t want to marry a person who is not in love with her. Never mind the fact, I guess, that it’s really unclear why Fin would want to marry Nicolette, a person he has known a very limited amount of time and is not in love with versus Caro, a person he has known literally his entire life and is in love with. Honestly, Fin and Nicolette have literally three scenes together before the exposition. It makes no sense. The inconsistency of the story kept the trope subversion from saving it. « Hide Spoiler
At one point we are read the entirety of the prince’s name (it’s a super long royal one, you know how they go) and Dougray is on the list. I can only think this is a reference to Dougray Scott and Ever After and it delights me. It was at this point that I realized this was the single most delightful thing about this book for me. Yeah, that’s not a good sign.
Sadly, Mechanica just didn’t live up to the promise of its potential. Lackluster plot, telling not showing, and completely irrational and/or convenient character choices combined to make this one all about pretty writing with no emotional backbone to support it.
An advance copy was provided by the publisher for this review.