The Broken Lands, by Kate Milford

Wowzers (and bang goes my resolve to write coldly crisp, analytical reviews of great intellectual rigor).   But when a book knocks your socks off, sometimes a wowzer or two is just called for.

The Broken Lands, by Kate Milford (Clarion Books, Sept. 2012, YA), takes place in New York, just after the Civil War; the title is both a reference to the raw wounds of the war, and is the name of a hotel on Coney Island.   It's on Coney Island, with its crime, poverty, and exuberant energy, that we meet young Sam, making a living beating holiday makers from the big city at cards....

And to this place, through coincidence (possibly) or design, come others.  The Chinese firework maker, and his adopted daughter, Jin (who becomes a central character).  Tom Guyet, black veteran of the Civil War, now guitar playing Traveller of the roads.   And other travellers, those who live lives that cross the borders of what is real.  But a sinister evil is drawing close to New York as well.   Jack Hellcoal seeks to make New York his own literal hell on earth.  And his sinister henchmen have been sent before him, to open the city to him through the death its five guardians.

Sam and Jin become inexorably drawn into this bloody, supernatural struggle.  And in a new reality of things impossible to believe, they must believe in themselves, and their unique abilities. Or else the city will fall.....

So intricate is the world building, so scary the story, so fond I grew of Sam and Jin and their friends (and so happy to watch Sam and Jin moving cautiously toward love), and so poignant the flashes of pain from this wounded land and the wounded people I cared for that I fell, hard, for the book.   But so twitchy the book made me--the middle two hundred pages or so of darkness encroaching and things being scary--that though I wanted desperately to find out what was going to happen, I had to keep putting it down!  And then so riveted I was in the last hundred pages that I stayed up too late to finish.

In short, I really really liked The Broken Lands.  I couldn't quite love it, because of being made so twitchy (a weakness in me, rather than the book), and because of a niggling feeling that maybe it could have been pared down just a tad), but boy did I appreciate it emotionally and intellectually.   The Broken Lands is a prequel of sorts to The Boneshaker (2010), though it stands alone, and that one I only was able to appreciate intellectually.  Here, though, the characters won my heart (the good guys are good, and well intentioned, and vulnerable, and care about each other; it's about how families can be made from friendships, about healing from emotional pain), and my intellect was more than satisfied by the tremendous, intricate world of Milford's New York, with supernatural tendrils stretching along the roads that cross the country.  This one, also, differs from The Boneshaker in that it is most definitely Young Adult-- the central characters are teenagers, with age-appropriate concerns, as it were, and there is much dark violence of a savage kind.  This is primarily of the supernatural sort, but there are shadows of human violence too (Jin's feet, for instance, were bound when she was an orphaned child being raised for a single, unsavory, purpose).

Here's what I loved best of all:  the supernatural card game based on medieval haigiography.  It is my Favorite Fictional Card Game Ever.   Here's a bit of it:  "By the strange logic of Santine, Sam had defeated the black plague (remembering this time to use a Nothelfer rather than a Marshal), a deluge, and a plague of locusts.  He'd lost a few of his cards to torture and apostasy" (pp 372-373).  And then Sam gets to counter a play of two Stylites (the dudes that sat up on pillars all day) with a pair of Cephalophores (the saints that get to carry their own beheaded heads in their arms)--

"Walker jabbed a finger at Sam's cards.  "What the hell kind of play is that?"
Sam shrugged.  "Figured they could throw their heads and knock the Stylites down." Sam had no idea whether this was a legal move, but as far as he could tell it followed Santine's logic"   (p 373).

Highly recommend to fans of historical fantasy, paranormal horror that doesn't involve vampires/zombies etc., and teenagers saving the world (or city) while falling in love.   Also recommended to fans of fireworks.  They play an important part in the story.

Here are other reviews, at The Book Smugglers, Book Aunt, and Random Musings of a Bibliophile.

disclaimer: review copy received from the publisher


  1. You had me with the wowzers, but almost clinched it with Coney Island, totally clinched it with your review. This is a definite one to read, I think.

  2. YES! YES! YES! I loved this book so much. I still haven't read Boneshaker yet. I ordered it when I finished this one. I'm interested to see how it compares.

  3. Hm, you make it sound so good - but I wonder if I'll be "twitchy" too. I think I'm going to have to give it a shot though, it sounds irresistible!

    1. It wasn't bad twitchy, though, Jessica--I was always eager to get back to it after my little breaks!

  4. That card game sounds awesome. (Says the girl who had to read hagiography for classes.)

    1. Me too, in Medeival Latin! My grasp of Latin grammer was so bad that I adopted the strategy of memorizing the translations in English...which worked out well....

  5. OMG just finished reading this and Santine was my favorite part. I wish I could play it....


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