A poetic but sometimes muddled fantasy novel from Phillips (The Burning Girl, 2006, etc.) that never quite has the momentum that its title implies.
The plot mostly follows Moth, a young religious apprentice in a society whose inhabitants descend from a race that fled some unspecified catastrophe generations before. The island on which all the remaining people live, surrounded by a vast, uncharted ocean, is quickly becoming too crowded, and poverty, food shortages and political infighting plague Moth’s people. Thus, Moth works with a secret group of cohorts to create the titular engine, a device part mystical and part mechanical, which will tap into the world’s spiritual energy and propel a similarly constructed ship into the unknown to seek new inhabitable land. Meanwhile, another secret group attempts to return to the world from which their ancestors escaped, never entirely certain whether it’s heaven or hell. It’s all a bit esoteric, and Phillips doesn’t make much effort to ground her story in scenarios that feel human or identifiable. The language easily slips back and forth from beautiful to obtuse, although there are some lovely passages that almost work as prose poems on their own, divorced from the story. Phillips touches on contemporary issues including the divide between the rich and the poor, religious intolerance and the dangers of overpopulation, but the book is not an allegory; it’s a rush of images and emotions that don’t always hold together.
The well-realized fantasy world and flashes of delightful prose nearly make up for the frustrating story and stilted characterization.