Scrolls Review – Haywired

Haywired by Alex Keller (ISBN 9781906132330)

One of the joys of the convention circuit is getting to meet creators face to face and having them pitch their work to you personally.  Not only do you get to meet some really interesting people but you often find yourself picking up books and comics that you may never have spotted otherwise.  At the London MCM Expo this year I met Alex Keller and bought his debut book Haywired.  On the back it’s subtitled: A Steampunk Fairytale and I think that’s a pretty good description, falling as it does somewhere between the Child and Young Adult markets.

Plot-wise it’s a classic children’s adventure full of dark secrets, hidden (rich) relatives, chase, capture and escape.  Ludwig von Guggenstein is an isolated but happy child, brought up in his father’s castle with just the gardener and the cook for company and his father’s library to study in.  Assisting his father in his scientific experiments he has no real notion of what the machines are used for or the dangers they represent, but the death of a local farmhand in one of the contraptions sets events in motion which force the boy to flee his home in the company of his monstrous brother, Hephaestus.  Pursued by HELOTS (mechanical abominations created by their father) they make their way across country and finally across the sea to enemy territory.  Along the way Ludwig gradually unravels family secrets, political plots and personal tragedies – and ultimately will find the way he sees the world changed forever.

For adults like myself who have gotten into the habit of reading ‘young adult’ fiction alongside our ‘grown up’ books since the Harry Potter renovation this feels perhaps a little too young, and reads a little too familiarly to be an altogether satisying read.  On the plus side it moves along at a fair old pace and twists around enough to keep the readers interest throughout (which is sadly a lot more than can be said for many bloated volumes clogging up the shelves.)  Unusually for a young adult book the author has focussed more on the personal journey that his character takes than in filling his book with whizz-bang distractions.  It makes for a more intensely emotional response in some particularly dark places and, though it leaves the world feeling a little sketchy on occasion, captures well the intense self-focus of children who simply aren’t aware of (and see no reason to care about) events, people and places outside of their immediate lives.  On occasion it can feel a little rushed, particularly in the last quarter of the book, and the cogs’n’leather fantasti-science doesn’t quite reach the giddy heights of invention found in the Mortal Engines series by Phillip Reeve. Nevertheless Keller brings enough spark to the tale to fire up the imagination and make the world feel a bit different, especially for a readership much more familiar with traditional science fiction or fantasy.  It’s important to remember who the target audience is, and I have to say, as a kid I would have devoured this and clamoured for more.

As it is, I can appreciate it as a cracking little read to bring youngsters into the genre, whilst not being able to wholeheartedly recommend it to bookworm kidults of my own age.

The sequel, ‘Rewired’ is being written at the moment – I’ll be interested to see how the characters and world develop – and then Alex is moving on to a new project.

3/5

Reviewed by Dion Winton-Polak.

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