The Dead Gentleman, by Matthew Cody (Knopf, 2011, mg, 288 pages)
In 1901, an eleven year old New York street urchin named Tommy Learner steals an unexpected prize--a mechanical bird. The bird was about to fall in the hands of the Dead Gentleman, an undying villain bent of the destruction of all living beings...but when Tommy makes off with it, the Gentleman's plans are (for the moment) foiled. And Tommy attracts the attention of the Explorers Guild, a secret society dedicated to the explorations of portals between a myriad of worlds, and begins a life of monster hunting, steampunk-esque submarine excursions, and mystery.
But one day, in the basement of an old hotel, a simple monster hunting mission goes horribly wrong. And Tommy is trapped....until, over a hundred years later, Jezebel, a bored and lonely modern-day girl living in the hotel, decides to explore the basement of the hotel, and sets in motion a chain of events that frees him. Now the two children, traveling through time and space, must keep the bird from the Dead Gentleman and his minions of Grave Walkers. No members of the Explorers Guild survive to help them. Fortunately, time is on their side (along with some nifty gadgets!).
I was sold on the premise--steampunk science-fiction time-travel adventure with kids! And I was not disappointed.
At first Tommy and Jezebel have separate stories (they are, after all, in different time periods), and it's not at all clear how Tommy's life as street urchin turned explorer's apprentice, and Jezebel's life as vaguely unhappy modern child, made infinitely more unhappy when her closet becomes a portal that disgorges monsters, are going to intersect. But I had no objection to this separation--I enjoyed getting to know each of them individually before the Big Adventure really got going. And Cody does a nice job with them--their personalities are nicely developed, and their struggles with friendship, loyalty, and escaping terrible death are convincing!
The science fiction elements (cool gadgets, travel to other worlds, supernatural undead villains) are certainly front and center, but not in a pushy way; not so much as to put off the kids who think they like their adventure stories science fiction free (edited to add: although certainly the ideal reader has to have a tolerance for the wildy fantastical!). The villain is, perhaps, a tad too utterly horrible to be swallowed without a pinch of salt, but he's not out of place in a book that clearly sets out to enjoy the impossible (although I must say legions of undead minions aren't really my thing).
The cover does a really nice job of capturing this spirit--note in particular the skulls in the goggles. If the cover appeals, you'll probably enjoy this lots. I'd give it to fans of Artemis Fowl, and Matthew Kirby's The Clockwork Three, but am not entirely satisfied that those are the best read-alikes--strangely (sarcasm font) I am not coming up with anything else in the way of middle grade steampunk sci fi adventure involving travel through both time and space!
It's a satisfactory stand-alone, but there's an opening left for a sequel, absolute evil being tricky to defeat absolutely. Although this isn't my own personal favorite type of book (what with aforementioned legions of undead minions), I myself wouldn't say no to more adventures for Tommy and Jez!