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Review: All Those Vanished Engines by Paul Park

By / January 15, 2015 / no comments

I don’t really know how else to say it, but All Those Vanished Engines was a frustrating book for me to read. It started off well, as the story of a girl in an alternate version of the South, sometime after the end of the Civil War. Interspersed with scenes from her life are fictional stories she’s composed in her diary, mostly about her future (imagined) descendants. However, this is not representative of the remaining 2/3 of the book.

The expectations I developed while reading the earliest section didn’t pay off later on. Part one followed a rather conventional sort of fantasy (or maybe steampunk) course. You sympathized with the protagonist, you were as eager as she was to find out what was going on, what the secrets were that had been hidden from her. When she was in danger, you rooted for her. Parts 2 and 3 were literary fiction, plain and simple, with some science fiction elements added in. It was lots and lots of the POV character (possibly a version of the author) talking at length about his own life and family and thoughts and recollections.

One of the things that frustrated me is that we kept getting led down a path, only for nothing to result. This was especially problematic in part 3. I was interested in the POV character’s investigation of his family’s history, for example. I had this sense that there was some connecting thread underlying everything, that we were just on the verge of figuring out what it was. And then the book just…ended. And I don’t think I would have understood what was implied by the ending if not for the publicity material supplied with my copy of this book.

At any rate, while I connected with the protagonist for part one, I didn’t have any affinity for the protagonist in parts 2 and 3. I can read books where I don’t connect with the protagonist, if other elements (plot, worldbuilding) make up for it. But I kept putting this book down and finding other things to do rather than picking it back up again.

Other random thought: the highlight of part 2, for me, was an old man’s discussion of the scientific project that has been made into a museum and his explanation for what the apparatus actually was. It was a very interesting idea for me to think about. (This section is also where the title of the book comes from.)

I was able to pull out some themes, so if you like reading for theme and/or making connections among disparate elements, you might like this book a lot. First, as I’ve already mentioned, the POV character from later sections came from a family of authors. And there are authors and/or writers in all three sections of this book. In part one, you have the girl’s diary. In part two, you have sections from a book the POV character is writing for Wizards of the Coast, as well as selections from a writing student. In part three, you have a lot of family history documents the POV character is referring to, looking for clues, as well as selections from books his family members have written. All of these written pieces can be interpreted as they relate to (or further) the main narrative.

Secondly, there’s a strong element of the “unreliable narrator” and/or the blending of real life and fantasy, fact and fiction, in this book (and sometimes the two concepts are inextricably linked). In part 3, the POV character tells a story involving a girl. Then, in the next chapter, he flat out tells you he was lying. It makes you start to doubt other things he’s said. Some meetings take place in Second Life (I didn’t even know people still did Second Life…). Sometimes you start adding facts from the interspersed stories (i.e., writings of the characters) into the main narrative without realizing you’ve done so.

In the end, I feel like I’ve been all over the place with this review. There were some elements I liked and/or found interesting, I was able to pull out a couple of recurring themes, etc. I think there is definitely an audience for this book and that quite a few people will appreciate it. But I also think its departure from some of the conventions of the speculative fiction genre (and/or the insertion of elements of literary fiction) has the potential to turn a lot of readers off.

 

Review by Sneaky Burrito

About the author

Ben

Blog editor, admin and founder of BestFantasyBooks.comYou'll find me on the BestFantasyBook forums and spending my spare time reading fantasy books and writing lists for this site. In fact, I have no spare time -- running this site IS my spare time!

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