Mysteries of Cove: Fires of Invention, by J. Scott Savage (Shadow Mountain Publishing, Sept 29, 2015, middle grade) is a great book to give to any young reader fascinated by making things, particularly steampunkish sorts of things, especially if they like dragons.
Years ago, a mountain was hollowed out to be a refuge for humanity. The children of Cove are told how pollution caused by unbridled innovation in technology drove their ancestors underground, and are told that creativity could unbalance the precision of their society. Everyone in Cove is supposed to be a good little cog in the machinery of society, never changing the way things are, because everything works just right.
Trenton is not a good little cog. He's the sort of kid who looks at machines and gets ideas, creative ones. And this gets him into trouble; instead of being assigned to a career maintaining the mechanical infrastructure of Cove, he's sent to work in the food production department, with nothing but plankton tanks to entertain him. But then he meets Kallista, the daughter of one of the worst cogs at all, a genuine inventor whose tinkerings apparently lead to an explosion that caused many deaths, including his own.
That's not the real story. When Trenton finds the first clue to the truth, one leads him to Kallista, the two set them off on a dangerous path of unbridled creativity and utterly forbidden mechanicals. For the trail of clues left by Kallista's father include the plans for a coal-powered mechanical dragon, and directions to the upper levels of Cove where the two of them can assemble it.
Her father wasn't just leaving her a fun project that he knew she'd enjoy. There were deadly reasons why the mechanical dragon should be built, reasons that threaten to tear Cove apart. It turns out that only invention and creativity can save the settlement....but it takes near disaster before its leaders, wedded to the status quo, can acknowledge this truth.
There really aren't that many middle grade speculative fiction books set outside of the real world about maker kids, who tinker and invent and weld and solder their inventions together. This book is perfect for that sort of kid, especially if they also like dragons and solving puzzles! Trenton and Kallista's journey to the truth is gripping; although the story gets off to a slightly slow start. It seems somewhat derivative at first, what with its authoritarian government stifling the individual, and the narrative of civilization's collapse due to the fouling of the world through pollution. But the momentum builds and builds until the last half of the book flies by in a blur of quickly turning pages; I didn't see the main twist coming at all, and found it very exciting. Elements of realistic middle school life, such as tensions from parental expectations, and tension with nascent romantic relationships, ground the more extravagant elements of the story, and make Trenton and Kallista relatable protagonists despite their extraordinary situation.
What I myself liked best about the book is that it celebrates creativity and the questioning of received wisdom, without being didactic about it. The ending resolves the immediate problem, but sets the stage for a sequel that will take Trenton and Kallista off on another hunt, beyond the questionable safety of Cove. I'm looking forward to it!
And I have to say that the cover of the book, with its magnificent steampunk dragon, does just a tremendous job of appealing to young readers who would like it.
disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher at BEA.