The Bookshelf, A Teen Review: The Explosionist by Jenny Davidson

Courtney Bowers
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Let me begin by saying that before you read “The Explosionist,” you must understand the context and the setting of the story. I spent a hundred-odd pages attempting to decipher exactly what era my imagination was venturing off to until I finally discovered an explanation located in the author’s note at the very end of the book. “The Explosionis”t is set in a parallel universe very similar to our own. Sophie, our 15-year-old orphaned heroine, attends a boarding school in Scotland in the late 1930s. However, this version of the twentieth century is based on a rewriting of history, a world where Napoleon won at the Battle of Waterloo and conquered England. Sophie resides in the Hanseatic states, a league of allied Scandinavian countries that remain powerful by controlling almost all of the world’s dynamite. Europe is on the brink of war, much like the reality of the 1930s, but this time, the eminent danger is within Scotland. The Brothers of Northern Liberties are a suicide bombing group rebelling against the government in a country where patriotic loyalty is considered of the utmost importance. This may sound like a lot of historical mumbo-jumbo, but the story really creates an intriguing plot that interweaves politics and mystery.

In Sophie’s world, science and technology are the foundations of society, but it is not uncommon for the most prestigious scientists to also hold séances to communicate with the dead. Sophie’s adventure begins when a medium channels a spirit that warns her of the imminent danger she is in. Afterwards, Sophie begins sensing spirits herself. Her great-aunt is a prominent woman in Scotland, and Sophie spends her days overhearing conversations of war and deceit. However, her biggest concern is IRLYNS, an institute that prepares young women to become the perfect secretaries for the powerful male leaders of the country. When Sophie discovers this transformation is the result of electroshock treatments that basically turn the girls into emotionless, thoughtless machines, she must do all she can to stop it. This peril, along with the murder of a medium, a corrupted government and the constant threat of bombings sends Sophie on a dangerous adventure. With the help of her detective-playing friend Mikael, a mysterious young chemistry teacher, and a very famous scientist, Sophie begins to unravel the mysteries of her world. But in order change the future, Sophie must truly connect with the spiritual universe and open the doors of her painful past.

Though the novel is extremely complicated, it’s impossible to not get sucked into the magic and secrets of this world. Sophie is an incredibly intelligent narrator, to the point that her grammar is annoyingly flawless, and her dialogue is perhaps too stiff, but the entire novel feels as if it’s teaching you something. Davidson takes historical fiction to an entire new level. She dares to play around with the timeline of history, and the results are fascinating. It is as if someone combined the dystopian element of “1984” with the adolescent magic of “The Golden Compass.” Although it’s a young adult novel, it never feels childish. I’m thoroughly anticipating the sequel in order to solve all of the puzzles set up by this book, for it’s sure to be a thrilling continuation of an almost-history lesson.

Have you read “The Explosionist?” Discuss your thoughts on the book below.

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