Monday, August 5, 2013

Hidden depths

My library recently decided to go solo in the downloadable arena -- we still get our audiobooks from OverDrive, but we aren't part of a consortium any longer. Some of the consortium's books are no longer in our collection, so -- in preparation -- I reviewed my wish list to see if there was anything on there that I'd be truly disappointed not to have the chance to listen to. It turns out that none of the items on my wish list were carried over, which makes me wonder why I selected this one from it. I think it may have been for no other reason than the right length (I needed a book for a car ride where I didn't have to "change" discs.)

Several years ago, I listened to the first installment in Arthur Slade's The Hunchback Assignments. It tells the origin story of a young shapeshifter, Modo, and his apprenticeship with the Permanent Association. Modo, allied with another teenaged spy Octavia Milkweed, saves the world from the evil Mr. Hyde and his Clockwork Guild. Despite their successful teaming, Modo won't reveal his true (deformed) appearance to Tavia. Now, in The Dark Deeps, Mr. Socrates has sent the duo on another mission -- find out why all these ships are disappearing without a trace in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, not to mention why the Association has lost contact with one of its spies in New York.

Disguised as husband and wife, Tavia and Modo learn that the spy died under mysterious circumstances, but left a coded message of longitude and latitude that sends them by boat to a spot near Iceland. Before they arrive at their destination, their ship is rammed and Modo falls overboard. Unbeknownst to Tavia, Modo finds shelter inside the huge mechanical submarine-fish, Ictíneo, but soon realizes that he may never escape from it. The reckless Captain Delfina Monturiol -- determined to create the world of socialist harmony her father dreamed of -- won't allow him to betray the secret of the underwater world of Icaria.  But, someone else came aboard the Ictíneo with Modo, and Captain Monturiol's world will soon be a secret no longer. Can Modo keep the Ictíneo from the mechanical hand of Miss Haakensdottir and the Clockwork Guild?

This is a rollicking adventure story inspired by Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and other Victorian adventures. Modo is an inspiring hero, sincere and straightforward (he doesn't make a very good spy really) and full of self-doubt. The spunky Tavia (along with the other two strong women he meets here -- the Captain and the French/Japanese spy Colette Brunet) provide a nice foil to this appealing young man. There's a lot of fun steampunk here with the mechanical fish and the tools of the Permanent Association's spy trade and the insane invisible boy Griff.

Jayne Entwhistle does the narrating here. I intially heard her read the first of these Hunch- back adven- tures and liked her husky, childish voice.  She brings the right amount of innocence to Modo's dialogue and invests each of the novel's women with a feminine authority that makes for a pleasant change. It's interesting that Modo's voice is in a higher register than the women in the story.  Entwhistle gets plenty of practice in accent-wise as this novel's characters include Americans, French, Catalan, whatever Nordic culture the evil Haakensdottir hails from, the East Indian Mr. Tharpa and others. She reads the novel with a breathless sense of wide-eyed fun that is fully in the spirit of Modo and his friends.

Now that I'm no longer in the exclusively-reading-for-youth arena, I've got to pick more carefully which series I stick with (as I can say with a lot of confidence that -- for many [dare I say most?] of them -- if you've read one, you've read them all. I'm slightly curious about the fate of Modo and the Permanent Association, though. Slade states at the books' website that it's over at four books ("The fourth and final ..."), which almost makes me feel that I should reward him for keeping it within reason and go ahead and finish the series. Sadly, though, I can't listen to them -- as they are no longer in my library's OverDrive catalog. I think I might be more interested in listening to Entwhistle read something else (although I did listen to her read Flavia de Luce and really didn't like it).

[The Ictíneo, or new fish, was the 19th century invention of one Señor Monturiol and was the first submarine to successfully navigate underwater. This replica lives on the grounds of the Museu Marítim in Barcelona. The photograph is by Till F. Teenck and it was retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

The Dark Deeps (The Hunchback Assignments, Book 2) by Arthur Slade
Narrated by Jayne Entwhistle
Listening Library, 2010.  8:14

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