August 11, 2013
Song of the Slums is the latest book by accomplished author Richard Harland, and is set in an earlier period in the same world as his acclaimed steampunk novels, Worldshaker and Liberator. This standalone novel sees a shift in focus from the mechanical marvels central to the previous books, to the more human and political elements of Harland’s alternative Victorian England. While Worldshaker and Liberator were distinctly works of steampunk, Song of the Slums could be more adequately described as a ‘gaslight romance’. The stronger emphasis on character works well in this context and results in a tale that is equally entertaining as and perhaps more widely appealing than its predecessors.
Song of the Slums tells the tale of Astor Vance, the musically talented daughter of an award winning musician (now deceased) and now stepdaughter to a former war hero and member of the aristocracy. When Astor is sent to Swale House, home to a family of extremely wealthy plutocrats, she believes she is going to be betrothed to the youngest Swale son. However, things aren’t quite what they seem. Astor is appointed as governess to the horrid Swale children, treated with contempt by the entire family, and caught up in the Swales’ devious political machinations. Her only ally is the obstinate yet charismatic servant Verrol, and even he is hiding something. Thus begins a saga of rags and riches, love and hate, political intrigue and a whole new kind of music.
I found Astor to be a likeable and interesting protagonist despite her initial position of privilege. I also appreciated that despite her limited exposure to the world of the slums and the fate of those who inhabit them, she was not portrayed as completely innocent and oblivious in general. She is a young woman who knows she is both talented and attractive and is aware of how she can affect people. While she is smart, talented and determined, she is also flawed, stubborn and somewhat vain. The other main character, Verrol, who could easily have come across as a ‘stock-standard-mysteriously-brooding-possible-romantic-interest’*, also displays an interesting mix of appealing, as well as less appealing traits.
One thing that struck me while reading was how versatile an author Richard Harland is, equally adept at crafting a less fantastical and more deeply human story as he is dreaming up bizarre grotesqueries and strange happenings. This should by no means be interpreted as implying that Harland loses his unique ‘voice’ however. While reading Song of the Slums it should be clear to any familiar reader that this is undeniably a Richard Harland book. The strange, unforgettable and often despicable character he portrays so well are present, and the horrid Swale children bring a touch of the grotesque. The book boasts a complete cast of varied and memorable personalities from gang-leading grannies to ambitious act-manangers.
Harland’s passion for music and performance really shines through in this work. Even someone as musically inept such as myself found themselves tapping their feet to the beat and harbouring unlikely delusions of hitherto undiscovered musical talent. (Hopefully my family, partner and pets will eventually forgive me my attempts at drumming).
Harland also incorporates the political elements underlying his alternate Victorian society with a deft touch, portraying them in a readily accessible manner so as not to bore younger readers or those reading primarily for a interesting tale rather than political commentary, without the kind of oversimplifying that would make them unbelievable to older or more politically interested readers. There are multiple layers here and those who demand greater depth need only read in between the lines.
Lastly, just so you have the opportunity to share the reading experience I had, here is video footage of Richard reading an except of the novel (reading starts at around 4mins 46 seconds but the intro is fun to watch too). I defy you to read the book after watching this and not hear it narrated in his voice the entire time.
<to be inserted>
*(I’m sure there is already a word for it but I am tempted to refer to the trope from now on as SSMBPRI- just rolls off the tongue doesn’t it?)
Here's a review that appeared from Tash M in Confessions from Romaholics. The first part is a summary of the story, but I'll cut straight to the last two paragraphs:
I didn’t want to end, I can’t remember the last time I read a steampunk and this was one I enjoyed immensely . The basic story is one we heard before, one of poverty rising up to take control but it told with a twist that I enjoyed. It a fantasy first that has hinting of romance and you will grow to enjoy this simmering in the background as the author takes a journey that is unique and enjoyable as Astor discovers that what she wanted maybe not the best thing for her and discovers what life is really all about through the friendships and the band .
4 couples, and the author has found a new fan of his work. I love his spin on fantasy and music and if you are music love who wants something with a twist
('4 couples' means 'very good' in the Confessions from Romaholics rating system. Something must've dropped off at the end of the last sentence, but it's easy to guess what it would've been!)