I’ll admit, I was kinda hornswoggled into reading this book. I saw it sitting on the shelf, found the cover art appealing, and read some of the blurbs talking about it. I saw references to Jules Verne, to the book being Fantasy, to it being “magical.” The cover image definitely reminded me of Verne, and I do enjoy a rousing retro-future adventure story. These days, certain types of fantastical writing falls under the umbrella term Steampunk, and while that subgenre has collected a lot of (to me) unpleasant fandom & baggage, I still find the themes and motifs enjoyable. This is, however, not at all the type of book the publisher seems to be trying to sell it as. In a rare twist, I’m actually glad I was tricked into reading this. It is not fantastical or any kind of retro Science Fiction. It’s a historically set adventure novel and it’s a pretty good one.
The plot of Esi Edugyan’s novel feels more like a Charles Dickens story than Jules Verne. A kid, born into slavery, proves himself useful to a powerful benefactor. He begins a series of adventures that take him from a British-run Barbados plantation to New York City, to the frozen North and beyond. Along the way he meets a cast of colorful characters both benevolent and sinister, while he gains some level of self determination.
Edugyan’s writing is smooth and easy, and she creates memorable characters and moments. The characters are also not so easy to pigeonhole. Some are deeply flawed, good people. Others are nasty characters with touches of humanity. She also manages to keep you guessing. You won’t know, reading the early chapters, where young George Washington Black’s adventures will carry him.
The book has a cinematic vibe to it, and I think would be a prime candidate for adaptation. A nice ten episode series would do the trick. Maybe one of these days.