I do not think that there can ever be enough books about anything and I say that knowing that some of them are going to be about Pilates.The more knowledge the better seems like a solid rule of thumb, even though I have watched enough science fiction films to accept that humanity’s unchecked pursuit of learning will end with robots taking over the world.-Sarah Vowell

Friday, April 29, 2016

Mechanica by Betsy Cornwall


This is the Cinderella story you have been waiting for your whole life. I've read the original and it's gruesome and good. I grew up with the empty-headed, impossibly nice blonde Disney version. This is the one you want your sons and daughters to read because it's cool and it rocks.  It takes the story and turns it on its head and creates a whole tumultuous world to put it in.

Nicolette Lampton's mother was an inventor. She made mechanical insects that did household chores but were also pretty enough to wear as an adornment. Her husband sold them, because he was a really good salesman and she was not and because the people of Esting would find it hard to accept a woman inventor. Long ago, a king of Esting went searching for a bride (no one talks about it aloud, but the royals and nobles go to other lands to seek spouses due to inbreeding). He discovered the land of Faerie and since they were stronger, he planted his flag and declared himself in charge of the place. In Faerie, there are no husbands or wives. They live with friends and when they want a child, one is chosen to bear the child and they get together and wish it into being. This is also how they create their officials, who are a combination of everyone.  A human and a fey can also wish a child into being, which the Brethren (the religious order of Esting) see as an abomination. The fey are seen as savages, of course. But they have magic, which Esting can use.  Nicolette's mother's inventions run on that magic.

Nicolette's father spends a lot of time traveling and her mother spends a lot of time in her lab, but her mother does spend time teaching her, and Nicolette works on fixing her mother's machines around the house. They have a housekeeper, Mr. Candery, who is half-fey.  She and her mother have fey wallpaper and drink fey tea. Her father is not so enamored with the fey as his wife who tells him that they can't keep treating the fey the way they do, or there will be consequences. The king's wife Nerali comes down with fey croup (for once the dominated group that usually gets sick from the diseases of those who take over, is the one getting sick). This is a very treatable illness.  A fey doctor is sent for and she is given lovesbane. Unfortunately, she is given too much, which is deadly, and she dies. So the king outlaws lovesbane. Then he outlaws magic and makes all the fey go back to Faerie (but not the half-fey). At this time, Nicolette's mother comes down with fey croup herself and her father refuses to try to get lovesbane to treat her and she dies. Nicolette is nine.

When her father remarries, Nicolette is excited, because she will get two step-sisters, Piety and Chastity, and she imagines all the things they can do together. She makes up their rooms herself with great care. They, of course, trash them.  Her father and new step-mother return early from their honeymoon when Heir Phillip is assassinated. Tensions rise in Esting. The king cuts off all trade with Faerie. No ships are to leave or come into Faerie. Then a skirmish happens in the market, and Nicolette's father is killed.   Nicolette is ten. Mr. Candery comes to her briefly before he is forced to leave and shows her where all the magic powders are stored so she can use them with the machines to make cleaning the house easier.  He also warns her to be very careful of her step-mother. She won't be, of course. Kids never are.

The next six years pass in a haze. On her sixteenth birthday, a letter appears under her door. It is from her mother and says it supposed to be given to her on her sixteenth birthday. She is happy that her step-mother did this for her. When she opens it up, her mother leaves her a message about where to find the key to her secret lab that Nicolette thought had been burned when she died.  She finds the key and opens the door to a wondrous place. It takes some coaxing, but soon the insects and other things come out from hiding to greet her, including a very special horse named Jules II, who seems almost alive, even though he can be held in her hands and is made of glass and copper, with coal in his belly.  There's also a sewing machine, which is great for her, as she hates sewing, and it takes so much of her time. She spends a great deal of time at night in the lab learning as much as she can from her mother's books and from the journals she slowly finds, that tell her more than just how to make something, but also personal information from her mother.

The king has decided to hold an Exposition of Arts and Science with a ball.  He wants to show how Esting can be incredible without magic. The steps are excited because Heir Christopher will have to be at the ball and this is their chance.  The king, worried about another assassination, has kept him hidden from view his whole life.  Heir Christopher will also be judging the inventions. Nicolette couldn't care less about the ball. She's interested in the Exposition. If she can show something there and get a patron, she can leave the steps and make enough money to buy her family's home.

She needs money, though for supplies. So she invents the knitting machine that knits lace. And she has just started learning to blow glass and has some glass beads.  When the steps send her into town to get material for a whole wardrobe to wear in preparation for the teas, luncheons, and of course ball gowns they will need, she goes to Mr. Waters. He is having a great deal of trouble with his sewing machine. It is completely broken and without it, he will go bankrupt. He had always been nice to her and Nicolette sees an opportunity for a swap. She fixes his machine and the only thing she asks for in return is some material for a dress to wear to the Expedition. She knows if she wants to sell her invention, she has to look the part. In her lab, she has hooked up the insects and Jules to the sewing machine and they now sew, but Jules, in seems, can also design clothes too. This frees her up to do other things. With the spare cloth from the clothes, she dyes the beads different colors.

She waits until a Saturday when the steps will be out for the day and heads into Esting, a place she hasn't been to in years. It's Market Day and she has no idea how it works. Luckily, she comes across Caro, a very fair girl, and Fin, a young man with chocolate skin and dark curls. Cari is immediately friendly and Fin is a bit of a flirt, with an easy smile and a wink. He makes gorgeous carvings and she makes music boxes. She calls herself Nick Lark, as Nick is the name the steps call her by, and Nicolette seems too formal for where she is. They make room for her at their booth and she promises to pay her share of the booth rent money as soon as she earns it. She only has one knitting machine, but right away a Lord Alming, whom she remembers reading about in her mother's journals, shows up and wants to buy one. She sells five more and then has to put it away because she can only make so many right now. She also sells out of beads.

When she gets home, she finds that her step-mother has discovered her lab and the steps have trashed it (except for the sewing machine, of course). They now know she is a mechanic. So they dub her Mechanica. They lock her in her room (she knows how to pick locks), but Cora appears at her window and Nick finds a way down. Cora takes her into the forest to a special place that Nick's mother told her about in a story. A long time ago there was an evil king and the Queen of the Forest provided shelter to the people in the treetops for all time.  These shelters still exist. She talks with Cora and Fin about her situation and Cora tells her that she will sell her stuff at the market and buy her her supplies, for a fee. It seems that Cora's mother has the fey croup and is dying and Cora will not accept charity money from anyone to buy lovesbane at the secret Night Market.

Nick cleans up the lab and gets to work. Cora provides more than just supplies; she gives her long letters filled with stories about her large family and such and the two begin a rich correspondence, becoming really close friends.  She also finds herself falling in love with the handsome Fin, who appears to be the bastard son of a foreign nobleman who married a woman from Esting. She has long conversations with him in her head, imagining a possible romance. All the while, she is also working on her special invention for the Exhibition.

Yes, she does go to the ball the night before the big Exposition, in mechanical glass slippers she made herself (this is just one of the reasons why she is way cooler than Cinderella), dances with a prince, loses a shoe, and leaves at midnight. But not for any of the reasons you think. And there's even a reason why the steps don't recognize her. After that, though, you leave the fairy tale in the dust (what there was of it to begin with). In the end, Nick doesn't need a fairy godmother to save her, or a prince. She saves herself, with a little help from her friends. And that is a lesson we should all learn.

Quotes
I had not yet begun to fathom that when Mother and Father disagreed about something, it meant that at least one of them had to be wrong; it had only recently occurred to me that they fought more often than they did anything else.
-Betsy Cornwell (Mechanica p 26)I was filled with a sudden curiosity and envy. Dance was hardly something Mother would have taught me. There wasn’t much time for it between engineering and theoretical physics, and neither she nor Father had been much for dancing.
-Betsy Cornwell (Mechanica p 53)Of course I wanted to talk to him. I wanted to talk to him too much, which was precisely why I couldn’t think of anything to say.
-Betsy Cornwell (Mechanica p 156)I’d spent so long trying to make the world think I was unremarkable; I realized now that I needed people to think of me that way. If anyone really thought I was special, they would ask things of me, things I didn’t think I could give.
-Betsy Cornwall (Mechanica p 161)Wishing is a frustrating business. There are far too many variables, infuriating for the scientific mind.
-Betsy Cornwall (Mechanica p 197)Nothing exists in your mind the way it does in the real world, she’d said. One must always account for the vagaries of truth.
-Betsy Cornwall (Mechanica p 207)Caro was right. None of us could truly promise the others that we would always be friends.  But always, I knew, was a long time—a time in which mothers could die and fathers be killed, housekeepers be sent away. Steps come and go. A whole life could change, and change again, in the smallest fraction of forever.-Betsy Cornwell (Mechanica p 207)


Link to Amazon: http://www.amazon.com/Mechanica-Betsy-Cornwell/dp/0547927711/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1461936626&sr=1-1&keywords=mechanica

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