Please understand that all my reviews focus on the interests of my middle school students. I never do a full plot synopsis in a review.
It is very seldom that I finish a book, close it, look at the cover and say, "Wow." That is exactly what happened when I finished this latest Matthew Cody book. For my tastes, it was that good.
Cody is one of those few authors who can switch from genre to genre and be just as good in one as the other. This book is a complete departure from his Powerless series in terms of genre; the problem is trying to categorize it. I mean it is part steampunk, part time-travel, part sci-fi, part period novel, and part fantasy. I guess Cody figured if he was going to switch genres, he might as well throw in as many of them as he could. The cool part of it is that he pulls it off so well. It is a great and seamless blend.
What do you like in a book? A fast paced plot? Covered here. Well developed characters? Check. Strong male and female parts? Gotcha'. First person narrative? Yep. Third person narrative? Got that covered, too. Hint of budding romance? Uh-huh. Strong mentor-kid relationship? Ok, you get the picture. (So far as I can remember, however, there was no kitchen sink.)
The only thing I can see that some might find falult with is that Cody is not really big on imagery; he describes the action but does not paint scenes for you. This suits me fine, however, as I prefer to let my imagination do that kind of work.
For the record, Tommy Learner (the main male character) is around twelve (but he's not sure--you'll see why when you read the book). The girl, Jezebel Lemon (some name, huh?), is definitely twelve.
I cannot imagine an average middle school kid not liking this book. I recommend it for all ages. And the best thing about the book is that it appears it is the first book of what is to become a series!
This book is chock full of interesting thoughts. I found myself highlighting several sentences. One was 'Never underestimate your ability to surprise yourself.' and another, 'When a creature that big has to think about something that hard, the outcome can never be good.' and many others. Lots of good stuff woven in with the story and someone of any age could enjoy this book.
This is a marvelous, compelling and rewarding book, but because of its fairly confusing beginning it will take a little commitment to get started with it.
The book starts with Tommy exploring something. There is a problem. Then it cuts away to Tommy offering to back up and tell the story starting a bit earlier. We are in 1900. Then we cut to now and Jezebel and strange happenings around her. Then we cut back and forth between Tommy's tale and Jez's dread. Only at Chapter 7 does a kindly character explain what's going on to Jezebel, (and us), and only then do the two characters and the stories begin to intertwine. From that point onward the story moves clearly and actively. The upshot is that your reader is going to have to have patience at the beginning, and is going to have to tolerate some confusion before things come into focus and the meaning of the events of the first few chapters becomes clear.
But putting all of that aside, this is a fine book. Tommy is a resourceful and engaging character. Jez is plucky and smart and a balanced and equal companion to Tommy. Some of the dialogue and throwaway lines are very sharp. Secondary characters are colorful, or flamboyant, or ironic - but certainly all entertaining. The villain is adequately villainous, although as is usually the case his motivation and back story is sadly undeveloped.
There is a steampunk feel to parts of the book, and some steam punk artifacts, which is fine. There is enough to give the book a strong flavor, but not so much that it overwhelms the story. Parts read more like a very hip, edgy Jules Verne update, and I mean that in a good way.
There are some sharp observations, some nice turns of phrase, and some compelling scenes. The book is undoubtedly way above average in terms of the quality of the writing and of the construction. It can sometimes try to do too much at once, and there can be some scenes that feel like the kitchen sink is being thrown in, but it's all so exciting and interesting that you hardly mind.
So, all in all, more fun, more creative, more original, and better written than I expected, and certainly a rewarding option.
Most of childhood can be summed up in three simple ideas: the yearning to explore anything and everything, an irrational fear of monsters lurking in your closet, and the unquenchable desire to save the world. Thankfully, THE DEAD GENTLEMAN contains all these ideas and even throws in a dastardly villain just to complicate matters. There are also ancient hidden cities, time-travel, and just about anything else you might be looking for in a book that captures the essence of youth.
Nineteenth-century orphan Tommy Learner didn't realize what he was getting himself into when he stole a mechanical bird from the Dead Gentleman himself. The bird, nicknamed Merlin, led him straight to the Explorer's Society. More than simply aimless wanderers, the Explorer's Society has the ability to travel between multiple worlds and increase their vast knowledge. The society, though, is beginning to crumble as the Dead Gentleman is slowly conquering each world one by one. He is headed to Earth next, and no punk street orphan or flimsy mechanical bird can stop him.
Twenty-first-century Jezebel Lemon's only adventure seems to come in the form of watching her artist father work on the large mural in her room. All that changes, however, once she decides to go exploring her large apartment building's basement. There she discovers the ghost, or something like it, of a boy named Tommy Learner. The next thing she knows, she's been transported not only in the past, but also to a strange new world inhabited with dinosaurs. Jezebel isn't sure what happened, so she looks at Tommy for a lot of answers in between running from dinosaurs and the local inhabitants. Thoughts of getting home are dashed once the Dead Gentleman appears, and he's taken a strong interest in Jezebel.
Reluctantly, Tommy and Jezebel agree to work together, and thus the three simple ideas of childhood are brought to fruition. Tommy and Jezebel must explore different worlds in order to figure out how to stop the Dead Gentleman from bringing to life all the monsters that lurk in the dark corners of closets. If they don't, then the world will be forever changed as they know it. Present and past collide in order to save the future.
THE DEAD GENTLEMAN has just about everything you're looking for in an escapist read. You'll easily get lost in the nefarious scheming of the Dead Gentleman and his plans for world domination and immortality. You'll easily fit in with Tommy Learner and his fellow explorers of the Explorer's Society with their somewhat unconventional methods. You'll easily relate to Jezebel and her hesitancy to get caught up in the boring and trivial worries of modern life. Sit back, relax and allow yourself to get caught up in the adventures of two youngsters trying to save the world. In fact, the only thing missing is the next book.
Steampunk will never supplant some of the better known genres out there in the hearts and minds of children. Kids walk into my library every day asking for fantasy, mysteries, funny books, scary books, and what have you. They don't tend to ask for science fiction unless it's part of a school assignment, and if you ask them if they'd like some Steampunk they look at you like you've started speaking in tongues. The word means nothing to them (and very little to quite a few adults as well). Nonetheless, while a kid might not be able to identify what Steampunk is (Quickie Definition: Futuristic elements mixed with old-fashioned gears and clockwork) but once they find a book they love they'll read it up, steam-powered ray guns or no. Steampunk is generally found in works for adults and teens, so Matthew Cody's "The Dead Gentleman" is a rarity in its field. Part early 20th century orphan scamp material, part present day end-of-the-world epic, and part Land of the Lost (trust me), Cody's book may not always entirely consistent but the characters are compelling, the settings fun, the storytelling's upbeat action is hard to match.
Tommy was just your average everyday 20th century street kid and cutpurse at first. There is such a thing as trying to pick the pocket of the wrong guy, though. When a routine pocket grab ends up involving a well dressed, walking corpse, Tommy ends up stealing a mechanical bird and, inadvertently, saving the world. Seems he's wrangled with a villain going by the name of The Dead Gentleman and in doing so ends up joining with an organization of explorers who travel all over the universe through space and time. When Tommy is trapped in a strange sunless world he manages to join forces with a present day girl named Jezebel. Together with the mechanical canary Merlin the three must try to defeat this singular villain before he conquers not just the earth but the universe as well.
Fans of Cody's previous middle grade novel "Powerless", a story of superhero kids and their disappearing powers, are aware that as an author Mr. Cody is pretty good at creating fantastical stories packed with action. Fight scenes, chase sequences, all that good stuff. In this book he gives himself a much wider world to play with than he did in his previous novel. The skies the limit when it comes to exploring different worlds and Cody has fun with that. Mind you, there's a lot of death here. Not to the main characters, necessarily (well... not all of them), but in the interest of the plot a whole city pretty much gets wiped out in the course of the tale. FYI. This book is very much the first in a series but that doesn't mean that this first novel doesn't stand on its own. All the plotlines get wrapped up and the book doesn't end with some cheap cliffhanger. You can see that there are more tales yet to be told but if this is the only book a kid gets their hands on, they won't be disappointed.
Of course there's such a thing as over enthusiasm. Cody is dead set on throwing every last cool element into this book that he can think of that as a reader you're left feeling more than a little out of breath. So it is that you encounter in the course of this book a clockwork canary, time travel, monsters, a kraken, zombies, dinosaurs, zombie dinosaurs, multiple worlds, a near toothless vampire, interplanetary travel, and the Land of the Lost. At least it looks like The Land of the Lost. It's underground, contains portals to other worlds, ape-like inhabitants, and dinosaurs. It also slows the novel down more than it should. Once it's left behind, things pick up again. There's also the mild problem that Cody has to use a bit of a plot contrivance to keep his characters in line. Routinely Tommy and Jezebel are trapped in a situation with the means of escape at their fingertips. Jezebel, you see, accidentally steps through time when she interferes with a Cycloidotrope. Tommy uses it to simply see into the future, and is told never to try to travel that way because it's a million to one shot that you won't be torn to pieces. A million to one shot if you're a bad guy that is. Good guys use the warning to keep themselves in peril, but when the going gets tough they can apparently use it with impunity.
That said, it's a great romp and the kind of book you can hand to a kid intent on action. I know that librarians are constantly on the lookout for "boy books", which is to say books that don't look pink and sparkly and might actually attract a reluctant male reader. "The Dead Gentleman" certainly fits the bill if that's what you seek. And if you're looking for something comparable to this you may be out of luck. The best you can probably hope for in the Steampunk middle grade genre is to read books like Matthew Kirby's "The Clockwork Three". Even then, you won't find the same sheer conglomeration of beasties and epic battles at work here. There may be a couple hiccups along the way but for simple enjoyment don't hesitate to pick this one up.
A fun adventure read where Steampunk Explorers and a brave girl fight the persistence of Evil in in this world and others. I liked it so much, I read it all in one swallow! Yes, he left the door open (a little) for a sequel!