I’ll admit, The Dark Unwinding by Sharon Cameron wasn’t really on my radar until I was asked to be part of the blog tour, but after seeing the cover and hearing the synopsis, I was intrigued. I haven’t read a lot of YA historical fiction without any paranormal or fantastical elements, but this one sounded really interesting. And then after meeting Sharon a few times — who is awesome, by the way — I bumped it significantly up my TBR list. After finishing, I’ve gotta say…this one is good, guys.
The Plot (from Goodreads)
When Katharine Tulman’s inheritance is called into question by the rumor that her eccentric uncle is squandering away the family fortune, she is sent to his estate to have him committed to an asylum. But instead of a lunatic, Katharine discovers a genius inventor with his own set of rules, who employs a village of nine hundred people rescued from the workhouses of London.
Katharine is now torn between protecting her own inheritance and preserving the peculiar community she grows to care for deeply. And her choices are made even more complicated by a handsome apprentice, a secretive student, and fears for her own sanity.
As the mysteries of the estate begin to unravel, it is clear that not only is her uncle’s world at stake, but also the state of England as Katharine knows it. With twists and turns at every corner, this heart-racing adventure will captivate readers with its intrigue, thrills, and romance.
From the first page, I knew I loved Sharon’s prose. I just wanted to wallow around in it. Her descriptions of the Tulman estate, where most of the book is set (and which is based on Welbeck Abbey in England, during the time of the Fifth Duke of Portland — a fascinating study in and of itself) are lush and vivid, and she does an amazing job of conveying the feelings of creepiness and mystery, but also wonder and joy, that permeate the story.
Her characters are varied and intriguing. There is prim and proper Katharine, the narrator, who is forced to choose between protecting her own grim future or that of her Uncle and his 900 tenants. There is wonderfully eccentric and childlike Uncle Tully, who brightened every scene he was in while also contributing a note of sadness. Katharine’s wretched Aunt Alice is the “villain” hanging over the entire story, concerned only with securing wealth for her son and making Katharine as miserable as possible, and every mention of her made me grit my teeth in frustration. Then we have the tenants of the estate, the dark and brooding Lane, with his eye for faces and unwavering loyalty to Mr. Tully; mute little Davy, who sees more than anyone realizes, and his constant companion, the rabbit Bertram; Mrs. Jefferies, who protects those she loves with a fiery fierceness; Ben Aldridge, whose fascination with Mr. Tully’s automatons seemed to overshadow everything else; and Mary Brown, Katharine’s maid, whose constant chatter filled many a silence.
Sharon spends just the right amount of time dropping careful clues about what’s going on that I was never lost, but not so many that I knew exactly what was going on. A huge part of the story is Katharine’s inner battle to figure out if she’s losing her mind, and I was right there with her, questioning things that had happened, wondering what was real, and clinging to logic and reason like a lifeline. Meanwhile, there’s tiny questions and inconsistencies that she notices around the estate, and tries to investigate, but we’re left always wondering if those things had really happened, or if they were imagined. It was extremely well done, and I felt very satisfied when the story wrapped up and answered all those questions.
Probably my favorite aspect of the story was Katharine’s interactions with her Uncle Tully. As this story is set centuries ago, when people like him were simply classified as insane, the book never comes out and says what his exact condition is, but I’m guessing it’s autism. He also has some extraordinary savant capabilities, including a penchant for mathematics and his ability to invent amazing clockwork automatons that seem to defy the laws of physics. There is nothing supernatural about what he does; it is simply the outcome of his wonderfully unique brain. Katharine herself seems to suffer from a bit of OCD, even though she doesn’t appear to realize it, and watching the two of them together was beautiful. I could probably have read an entire book consisting solely of their conversations and still been satisfied.
But of course, there’s more to the story than that. There’s mystery and intrigue, a touch of adventure, and a hint of romance. I think a problem the book has is setting expectations accordingly (which is not the book or Sharon’s fault); because it’s different than most other books out there, it’s being lumped in with other stories that are nothing like it. The book is being marketed as “steampunk adventure,” which it’s absolutely not, and some people are even saying there are supernatural elements, which there aren’t. If I had to classify this book, I’d say it’s kind of Victorian Gothic-Light. There’s mystery and creepiness, but no horror, and there’s romance, but nothing blatant. The stars of the book are the intensely atmospheric prose and the beautifully developed characters.
To avoid a 100% gushy review, I’ll touch on my (very few and far between) criticisms of the book. It’s a very contemplative story, so if you’re looking for a fast-paced adventure, this is not the book for you. It picks up towards the end, but most of the book unfolds very slowly. I was never bored — actually, the gradual pacing allowed me to do the wallowing I talked about — but nor was I on the edge of my seat, on pins and needles to find out what happened next. And then the ending could leave you a bit unsatisfied, depending on what you’re looking for in the book. It ties up the plot arc neatly, but leaves some emotional threads dangling. Also, without wanting to spoil anything, I’ll just make the very vague statement that towards the end, something happened that broke my heart in a way I did not expect to have my heart broken in a YA book. So be warned. Sadness awaits.
But honestly, my criticisms aren’t even really criticism. They’re more “proceed with caution” signs, so you don’t rush headlong into a book that is different than what you might be expecting. But if you go in prepared, I think you’ll be in for a treat.
If you are looking for something with beautiful writing, excellent characterization, an intriguing setting, and a captivating plot that unwinds gradually and intricately, then I’d suggest you try The Dark Unwinding.
Content Guide: Contains mild violence, and a couple potentially disturbing deaths.