Reviews: Sleeper and Arabella

Today I’m fangirling about a couple of new, relentlessly energetic and entertaining Young Adult novels. Sleeper is a high-powered, historical spy thriller set during World War II with a bit of a paranormal twist. Arabella and the Battle of Venus is a rollicking science-fiction steampunk fantasy set in space during an alternate version of the 1800s. Both offer highly relatable characters, compelling plots, and nonstop action.

And what’s especially cool for me is that I’ve worked with both of these authors in real life! I’m amazed at how much creative genius lives amongst us every day, which we might not fully realize until it materializes as a superbly crafted saga on our e-readers (or a printed book with a beautiful cover) that We. Can’t. Put. Down.

I’ve really enjoyed both of these books, and as a bonus I’ve already gotten an early jump on gifts for those hard-to-buy-for younger readers on my holiday list!

I hope you’ll join me after the jump as I explain why I recommend these gems for fantasy and action fans of all ages. Though be warned, you might want to get a good night’s sleep and stock up on energy bars before you take a peek at page one, as they can be exhausting!

J. D. Fennell at Waterstone’s
in Belfast, Ireland
David D. Levine at Powell’s Books
in Portland, Oregon

Sleeper is an action-packed thriller by J. D. Fennell set in and around 1941 London. German planes bomb the city regularly. Sixteen-year-old Will Starling is set on revenge against the people who killed his family. So right on page one he highjacks a paramilitary mission for his own purposes, which sets off an adventure that never relaxes its galloping pace or its firm grip on your attention.

Will has just completed a long and brutal training with the subversive, ultra-secret VIPER group, and his first assignment is to retrieve a mysterious notebook about a secret weapon. Unbeknownst to VIPER, Will has his own plans for the notebook, which take a turn for the worse, head straight off a cliff ... and then he wakes up in a fishing boat with no idea who he is.

The rest of the story revolves around piecing together what happened to him before his amnesia gets him killed. Why does he have so many sharply honed and rather alarming, though exceedingly useful as it turns out, secret agent skills? Plus know how to use and dismantle an impressive arsenal of weapons, with no recollection of having seen them before? Who keeps shooting at him and why? What’s this ancient notebook filled with indecipherable symbols and maps and references to powerful mythological relics? And most pressing of all, who is he and where is his family?

Will’s relentless pursuers, like his indomitable spirit and seemingly infinite youthful endurance, rarely relax their intensity. He and the colorful assortment of assistants he finds along the way track clues voraciously, zigging and zagging through London, but can they elude sniper bullets long enough and figure out what they need to do before London is destroyed? To imagine this frenetic race in your mind, just look at the book’s cover!

Fennell creates a charming yet lethal protagonist that I couldn’t help cheering for most enthusiastically, and I’d love to see a good screen adaptation of this book. A lot of fans say that Will reminds them a bit of fictional teen spy Alex Rider, but alas I haven’t read his exploits. I thought of Will as a young Jason Bourne embroiled in adventures with overtones of Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Long after I decided what favorite stories this book reminded me of, I found a video of Fennell using the same comparisons! The accompanying article also explains how growing up in Belfast, Ireland, during the political unrest of the 1970s inspired his lifelong passions for reading and writing, and heavily influenced this first-rate debut novel. Unfortunately, Fennell lives too far away for me to attend a book signing, but perhaps he’ll consider appearing at my local bookstore if he has the opportunity to travel to my city again.

Sleeper’s prose is clean, crisp, and precise, with nothing to impede the pacing of the story and yet generous opportunity to marvel at the picturesque settings (castle ruins, museums and cathedrals, London’s docks and seamy sidestreets) and puzzle through the mysteries with Will. I got sucked into Will’s head immediately, playing the quick-witted, fleet-footed hero vicariously through his eyes, even though I’m several decades older and a Wench! So I am looking forward to the next installment in this series, and maybe visiting a few of the locales during my next trip to London. (En route to my dream Outlander tour of Scotland, of course!)

This Wench rates Sleeper...

Arabella and the Battle of Venus is the second installment in the Adventures of Arabella Ashby series by Hugo Award winner David D. Levine, and it’s every bit as thrilling as the first. (See my review of book 1, Arabella of Mars, here. In February, that book won the 2016 Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy.)

The feisty and fierce young Arabella’s world is set in an alternate version of the 1800s in which there’s one small difference from our own solar system: space is filled with air. Isaac Newton observed bubbles rising from his bath, which eventually led to space travel in ships made of a special Martian wood on currents of air. These steampunk starships are fantastical clipper ships that launch with coal-powered hot-air balloons, then move using large interplanetary currents and 360 degrees of complex sail rigging supplemented by human-pedaler-driven wind pulsars (which I’m assuming is a fancy word for fans). Levine has so much fun inventing and explaining his clever gadgetry, I feel like a kid at Christmas unwrapping shiny new toys whenever I enter his worlds.

The story picks up shortly after the first book ends. Arabella is awaiting the return of her fiancé, Captain Singh, who sailed off to Venus on a secret mission without explanation and got captured by his enemies. Which are the French, under the leadership of Napoleon Bonaparte, who has recently escaped the prison where he was exiled on the moon and is cooking up big plans and newfangled armored starships to conquer the British colonial empire on Earth, Mars, and Venus.

Arabella is notoriously bad at sitting around waiting like a proper British lady, so she decides to hire a privateer ship to take her to Venus to rescue Singh. With a matronly chaperone, of course, as if anyone could keep up with Arabella or induce her to behave in a way society considers appropriate for unmarried gentlewomen. She’s Arabella, so you know it doesn’t take her long to donate her dress for bandages, don pants, and start hopping around in the rigging. Then, in her spare time, she begins designing a new automated navigator to help her figure out how to get to Venus before the French reinforcements!

Of course, things get complicated, but it’s so much fun to watch it all unravel and then get put back together in some entirely convoluted new configuration. There’s never a dull moment! And lots of cool, new technology — coal is so yesterday!

The enigmatic automaton ship navigator Aadim, who was such an interesting part of book 1, returns, along with a few other familiar faces. We also meet some new characters, including the Venusians, whose physical appearance and speech resemble that of frogs on Earth. Arabella takes the time to figure out that there are different Venusian cultures and languages, and learns to communicate with them well enough to form an alliance. Most Venusians are aligned with the [insert archaic British frog-lover insult] French in the quest to topple the interplanetary British empire.

Once again, I’m absolutely enchanted with Arabella’s world and with Levine’s exquisite descriptions. He has such a flair for words, and I’m a total word geek, but a highly visual one. He has that same ability to paint meticulously detailed, three-dimensional, intensely vivid pictures in my mind with words — ranging from vast planetary panoramas to the individual teeth on tiny whirring gears in complex machinery — that originally attracted me to lifelong favorite fantasy authors like Ray Bradbury.

There’s one more book to go in the series, and Levine says he has no more plans for Arabella after that, though her world might continue to spawn a few more related tales. If you get a chance to see him read from his books, dressed up in his signature steampunk tails and top hat, that’s always a treat! His enthusiasm is absolutely infectious! And since I’m hooked, it’s going to feel like a looooooong wait for the final book to find out how Arabella will recover from the shocking, life-altering effects of the Battle of Venus!

This Wench rates Arabella and the Battle of Venus...


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