Published by HarperTeen on February 20th 2018
Genres: young adult, fantasy, historical, horror
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Gangs of New York meets Cassandra Clare in this debut YA fantasy set in 1882 Brooklyn
New York, 1882. A dark, forbidding city, and no place for a girl with unexplainable powers.
Sixteen-year-old Avery Kohl pines for the life she had before her mother was taken. She fears the mysterious men in crow masks who locked her mother in the Tombs asylum for being able to see what others couldn’t. Avery denies the signs in herself, focusing instead on her shifts at the ironworks factory and keeping her inventor father out of trouble. Other than secondhand tales of adventure from her best friend, Khan, an ex-slave, and caring for her falcon, Seraphine, Avery spends her days struggling to survive.
Like her mother’s, Avery’s powers refuse to be contained. When she causes a bizarre explosion at the factory, she has no choice but to run from her lies, straight into the darkest corners of the city. Avery must embrace her abilities and learn to wield their power—or join her mother in the cavernous horrors of the Tombs. And the Tombs has secrets of its own: strange experiments are being performed on “patients”…and no one knows why.
Before I start my review, I want to get the stuff about the usage of the word “gypsy” out of the way first. If you were following along with my status updates, you would have noticed that I mentioned the author note at the conclusion of the book talking about this very thing. The author mentions that she decided to use the word because that’s what society would have called them during the time the book was set, and that she decided to capitalize the word to show that she wasn’t using it as a slur.
Which I get, but here’s the thing. I understand the usage for historical accuracy, but…your book is a FANTASY. Yes, it’s set in a place that actually existed, but you’ve tweaked it and made up your own rules, and your characters can psychically control people or see their auras (and change their emotions), so I’m not sure anyone would actually care if you had called them Roma or Romani instead of the G word. I don’t think any reader would have blinked twice. And if you’re potentially dealing with the usage of a word that may hurt someone that decides to read your book, I don’t see why you would make that decision. There are other pejorative terms with roots in historical significance and no author would ever dare use those words in a book publishing today (and they shouldn’t), so why is it different and acceptable here?
I’m changing topics here though, because I do want to talk about how great this book was. The Tombs has some steampunk elements what with the airships and the goggles, and it’s set during a turbulent time in New York City’s history, and I must say it was incredibly well-researched, taking place in some interesting historical NYC locations. In this book, The Tombs is used as an evil facility to house mentally ill patients, but also patients that aren’t mentally ill at all but have powers Doctor Spector wants to exploit. Avery’s mother was captured by this evil (and I mean evil) man and his crow-mask-wearing assistants.
I think the thing that works in this book that may not work in others is how often Doctor Spector appears on the page. He’s illusive and really doesn’t have nearly as much of a role as his assistants do. The crow guards show up almost everywhere, and they are terrifying too, but the Doctor’s illusiveness only lends to the creepy factor.
I want to note that the version of The Tombs that the author uses actually did exist, just not as a psychiatric facility like it is here. It was a prison instead, and it was sinking from the very moment the cornerstone was laid, just like the author states because of the crappy foundation it was built on. So the lower levels were leaky, constantly under construction, and always falling apart, and this is where the author decides to house Doctor Spector’s house of horrors.
Avery wants to get her mother out, but while she does that, she also has to deal with the fact that she has the same powers her mother got kidnapped for. She visits the Romani camp to learn how to develop her powers as did her mother before her. And I’m stopping here to mention how much I loved the Roma camp and characters. There is an opportunity for Avery and a Romani girl named Katalina to be catty toward each other when they had an interest in the same guy, but the author didn’t take it in that direction, and I was thoroughly surprised and thrilled it was handled in such a refreshing way.
Also important for those that may find it to be a problem, there is what seems to be a developing love triangle, or maybe a love square, but also maybe not because of the way Avery feels toward the end of the book. The Tombs is probably not a standalone because of the way it concludes. There are a lot of lose ends. There is also some satisfying closure with certain story elements but I cannot imagine that this is where it will finish. That said, I am certainly willing to invest more time in this alternate version of New York City.
The writing was stunning and atmospheric. All the characters and locations were full of depth and devotion to craft. Just as much attention was paid to the side characters as was paid to the protagonist. For the record, one of the love interests was black, and the other was Romani, which was nice. I also loved Avery’s relationships with her co-workers, who were boys younger than her. Forced child labor is never easy to read about, as is physical child abuse, so trigger warnings for those. I highly recommend this book though, if any of this sounds like something you may like.