Cogheart, by Peter Bunzl, is a children’s science fiction (or possibly fantasy?) steampunk novel. It features a young girl named Lily, a mechanical fox named Malkin, and an abundance of airships. At the start of the book, Lily’s father (and only living relative) goes missing, and the story starts at her austere boarding school as she is taken into the custody of a malevolent housekeeper.
Although Cogheart features a lot of my favourite tropes (boarding school, mechanimals, plucky tomboy), I found it to be pretty uneven. Now, it’s definitely written for children, so I am not the target audience – but even taking that into consideration, I think it definitely reflects the fact that this is Bunzl’s debut novel. Lily’s friend, Robert, is relatively fleshed out, but the remainder of the characters are not. Lily herself is the archetype of a ferocious non-girly girl — obviously a favourite stock type of mine (cf. Nancy Blackett), but not actually character development in and of itself. She reads a bit like someone destined to become a female Stephen Moffatt character once she grows up. The rest of the characters are also largely one-note, and I didn’t think that the excellent settings (airship, boarding school) were used to their full extent.
I also found this book to have flashes of extreme darkness that I found odd in a book seemingly aimed at eight-year-olds. (Looking on the author’s site, I noticed that his favourite children’s book is The Witches by Roald Dahl – a book that gave me nightmares for literally months after I read the first few chapters as a child – so perhaps it’s just me). At one point, the child characters kill one of the villains – it’s a grisly scene and there is a fair bit of detail. More than that, they don’t even seem bothered by it. I felt like, tonally, this book couldn’t work out if it was a fun romp or a dark tragedy, and I think it would have benefited from a decision about that.
Despite all these issues, there were things I really enjoyed about this novel. As I’ve alluded to already, Robert is a fascinating character and he has a lovely arc. There were also a lot of small details that I liked. Malkin, a mechanimal fox, is a delight, and as the story progresses a lot of details about how he works are revealed. Some of the villains are extremely villainous, and the characters who act as henchmen for the chief baddie are suitably creepy. There were a couple of (subtle!) tongue-in-cheek references to Disney films or plot points. I certainly think this book was doing worldbuilding for a much more interesting plot in subsequent installments.
At times, especially towards the end, it looked like the book was going to touch on some truly interesting themes. For example, Lily realises that the father she idolised for years has frequently made poor and sometimes selfish decisions. However, just as she starts to reflect on this, the issue resolves itself in a matter of minutes, and we never really get to see her dealing with it. I hope this is something that’s dealt with in more detail in subsequent books, as it’s something that is rarely addressed in children’s literature, even though books for children are often teeming with incompetent parents.
I will probably read the next book in the series – Moonlocket – as I think Bunzl’s writing deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, this is definitely not my favourite book of the year.