Book Review: The Dead Isle by Sam Starbuck

Welcome to the first of what will hopefully be many book reviews here on my blog. My plan is for these to go up every second Friday, though since my Wednesday post went up on Thursday this week, I decided to give it a day. Also, I need to make myself sit still because my housemate moved out yesterday and I keep intending to move things into my new bedroom but then I end up just walking from room to room and making myself dizzy. Anyway, without further ado:

Title: The Dead Isle
Author: Sam Starbuck
Genre: Steampunk/alternate history
Format: E-book, available from Extribulum
Date Read: ohhh… some time back in July or August 2013 – 03/01/2014
Rating: ★★★★☆


I really,  really loved this book.  Y’all should read it. That is all.

Oh, some incoherent rambling and three sentences do not a book review make? Sorry, my bad. Let’s start again.

Have you ever read a book that is so good that you can’t immediately start another one (even if you’re in the airport for five hours and have a very long flight ahead of you) because you’ve gotten so involved in that book’s world you’re not quite ready to let it go yet? Or one where you’ve said, “Yes, this is the quality of writing I want to produce”?

deadisleThe Dead Isle was both of these for me. It is set in a steampunk world of Creationists, who can Create objects out of thin air (though said objects are not permanent) and Engineers, who… well, study and build machines. Clare Fields is the former, Jack Baker the latter, but the two of them are as close as two friends can be. Jack studies Engineering while Clare studies Creation,  until Jack’s immense talent is spotted by Ellis Graveworthy, a somewhat mysterious Englishman who wants to commission Jack to build him an airship so he can travel to Australia, “the Dead Isle”, where Creationists lose their power. Some are born immune to the Dead Isle’s curse, but they are quickly expatriated to England or America.

The story moves quite slowly and is quite long, but somehow it keeps you interested the whole way. It does take a little while go get into; I had read the first 8% of it ages ago, but got distracted and didn’t come back to it until I needed something to read on the Tube while I was in London and figured I ought to give it another look. I was very quickly hooked, and will freely admit there were a few days where I begrudged having to go out and do touristy things because I just wanted to stay in and keep reading! The main plot is interspersed with this world’s versions of well-known fairytales, as well as transcripts from letters and lectures given by the characters after the events of the book.

The plot deals with themes of gender, race, religion and class. Sam Starbuck is not Australian, but he does a very good job of portraying the divide between the Colonials and the Indigenous Australians (they are referred to as “Tribals” by the white people, which made me cringe; to my [admittedly limited] knowledge that term has never been in common usage in Australia,  and though you could argue it was part of the alternate universe world-building, it was one of the things that knocked the half-star off my rating). There are an equal number of male and female characters,  and it is particularly interesting watching the white male characters realise what their female friends (not white in one instance and in the other… well, that’s rather a big spoiler so I won’t mention it) are going through. Clare also struggles to reconcile her religious beliefs with what she is required to do to resolve an awful situation. There are shades of grey everywhere, and Starbuck does not necessarily set out to solve every problem, but to highlight them and show how a solution can be worked towards.

Sometimes the world-building got a bit confusing – there was quite a lot of talk about Australia before I finally figured out what the “curse” entailed – but for the most part it is incredibly detailed and beautiful.  Whether it’s Jack examining an engine he’s never seen before (and his excessive enthusiasm for machines is so very endearing) or Clare watching a young Indigenous girl Create something that will exist permanently, the language is just wonderful and draws you in completely. The four main characters are all interesting and unique,  and they develop a great dynamic with each other.  It probably won’t surprise you to know that romances do develop over the course of the book but they are slow-building and gentle. As a hater of any kind of love-at-first-sight kind of plots, this appealed to me greatly.

As I said earlier,  when I got to the end, I wanted more of this world, and not only because it’s partially set in Canberra, where I live, and no one ever sets books in Canberra (it was even pretty easy to ignore the fact that the book is set about thirty years before Canberra existed 😛 ) While it ends in a very good spot, the characters have all come a long way and are all moving into new chapters in their lives and it would be wonderful to see them handle those. I think, however, that I will have to be content with what I got, as after such a long, theme-heavy first book, a sequel would be a difficult thing to manage.


Coming soon: reviews of novels by fellow bloggers Elaine Jeremiah and Shah Warton, as well as some other popular novels and a few classics thrown in.