In this dystopian YA novel set in an alternate, steampunk-y version of California, a teenage girl gets mystical visions of tasks that she must perform to save her people.
In 1894, the village of Promise in North California has long helped passengers from a nearby train line that carries the unwanted—lepers, refugees, the elderly, abandoned children—to a workhouse/asylum in British South California. Juanita Elise Jame-Navarro was rescued from the train and brought to Promise as a baby; now 15, she’s become a “mystic traveler” for her tribe. From the Shadow World, she gets a mission to sabotage the workhouse train because a new superintendent plans to cut expenses by killing the asylum’s “expendables.” Juanita has spirit guides to help, such as her ancestor Billy, a locomotive engineer who addresses her as “Little Engine Woman.” After the sabotage, her plan is to escape southward to Mexico, which brings its own dangers—especially from the cruel and powerful Mendoza family. But the planned explosion goes wrong, killing some Promise folk—likely including Juanita’s beloved, Galen—and leaving herself injured. Pilgrims rescue her and take her to their village; feeling betrayed by the Shadow World and heartbroken over Galen, Juanita bides her time. Two years later, Billy again insists on a perilous sabotage mission, this time involving the unscrupulous Antonio Mendoza. Billy believes that the Mendozas can be outsmarted and perhaps even motivated to shut down or clean up the asylum. Juanita’s new quest is to steal a train, blast the tunnels, look for Galen, and recover Carla, an asylum-bound baby. During her mission, she’ll learn startling truths about her family history and discover new strengths.
Many sci-fi and fantasy novels are organized around a quest. Although Juanita does indeed solve problems and cover some ground, these are secondary to her maturing understanding of herself, history, the Shadow World, and relationships in both the spirit and human realms. Like Ursula K. Le Guin, Hill (Heroes Arise, 2008) pays attention to the anthropology of her invented culture in ways that enrich the story greatly, often in details that subtly underscore how the society both resembles and differs from our own. For example, Juanita worries about being too plump, but she also likes the soft black hair on her legs because she sees it as feminine. The steampunk influence is also subtle; some characters wear top hats with goggles, and there’s a clockwork man and a mystical tin airship. Steam trains are also important, of course, and Hill has researched their operations well. But this is a book about people, not inventions, and its emphasis is on its characters’ choices and their consequences, as when Juanita wonders, “Who would I be by the time I stopped the asylum train, found Galen and rescued Carla?” However, philosophical musings don’t take the book over, either. Tough, painful, and real things happen to Juanita, making her determination to carry through her mission all the more heroic.
A coming-of-age story that thoughtfully blends mysticism and adventure.