The Explosionist, by Jenny Davidson (Harper Collins, 2008), was one of the books my fellow sci-fi/fantasy panelists and I just shortlisted for the Cybils. Set in a very different version of Edinburgh in the 1930s (Napoleon won the battle of Waterloo), 15 year-old Sophie finds herself drawn into a chaotic mystery involving terrorist bombings, a murdered medium, and her own growing abilities to communicate with the dead, as well as sinister government machinations that have immediate and horrifying ramifications for Sophie and her school friends.
Many have praised the excitement of the story, with its fast pace and engrossing alternate history details, and its great central character (Grow Wings, Teen Book Review, Of Books and Bicycles, and the Ya Ya Yas, to name a few). But I have a reason of my own for loving this book, one that I haven't seen mentioned before.
You see, I am an inveterate reader of British school girl stories, and in many ways The Explosionist is heir to one particular sub-genre of these books--the plucky school girl who foils the Enemy Plot. The majority of these books are set in World War I and World War II, and often strain the bounds of credulity (see footnote). The Explosionist, however, takes this story line and in its fantastical, alternate history way, makes it convincing and wonderful. I loved the interactions of Sophie and her boarding school friends, I appreciated the elements common in many school stories--the intelligent and attractive boy next door to the school, the stern aunt charged with bringing up an orphan girl, and the fact that Sophie, like so many of my favorite school-story heroines, is bad at games. And Sophie is just the type of school girl I like best--smart and interested in learning, uncertain at times but capable of learning from mistakes, plucky without being obnoxiously unbelievable.
I asked Jenny Davidson if she was, in fact, a fan of the genre--her answer was "Yes!" So although I am happy to recommend this book to anyone who likes great adventure, strong characters, and a wonderfully imagined alternate world, I am even happier to recommend the book to readers like me, who love the British school girl.
Footnote on School Children Foiling the Enemy: Some, like The Marlows and the Traitors, by Antonia Forest, Nicolette Detects by Magaret Locherbie-Cameron, and The Denehurst Secret Service, by Gwendoline Courtney, which all involve children thwarting the Germans, are good reads. Others, not so much. The most ridiculous, perhaps, is the Australian book With Wendy at Winterton School by Dora Joan Potter, in which the school girls capture Japanese spies disguised as nuns.