I really enjoyed Matthew Cody’s first book, POWERLESS, so I was delighted when a copy of Cody’s latest MG fantasy THE UNDEAD GENTLEMAN arrived in the mail.
Unabashedly steampunk, this novel throws steampunk elements at the reader like a magician flinging cards. Submarines! Goggles! Mechanical birds! Time travel! One of the two protagonists, Tommy Lerner, even comes from the right time period. Tommy’s an Explorer, last of a secret society devoted to exploring the hidden mysteries of the world. Jezebel Lemon, fellow New Yorker (albiet of a modern century) meets him when he appears in her room to warn her that the monsters in her closet are real.
As the title implies, the events of the novel revolve around the dead gentleman, an evil lich who wants to take possession of Merlin, the mechanical bird that is the unofficial mascot of the Explorer’s academy. Tommy and Jez don’t know why the undead gentleman wants the bird, but they do know that if he gets it, he will destroy the world.
This book is written to appeal to preteen readers, and I suspect it will do so admirably. How can it not? It’s got adventure! Dinosaurs! Monsters! Airships! I couldn’t help but put exclamation points after them, because it felt like that’s how the elements were introduced.
I rarely say this about anything (plodding dense novels being anathema to me) but this book was actually too fast-paced for my taste. In one scene we’re near the bottom of the ocean, and then we’re in the land of the lost, and then we’re in the Academy, and then it’s a hidden city, and then it’s back in New York again, and it all went so fast I felt I never quite got my bearings. I never figured out how things worked. How did they go to other dimensions? Why was Tommy chosen as an Explorer? What, exactly, did the trogs think about him? Where was Jez’s father this whole time? I’m sure somewhere there’s a 10-year-old who has read this book eighteen times already, and can sit me down and impatiently explain the whole manifesto, but I want to be able to figure things out on the first read.
I have mixed feelings about the characters. I liked Jezebel Lemon well enough, but Tommy Lerner grated my nerves from the first sentence to the last. I think he was supposed to be a swashbuckling brave street kid, but he came off as a smug brat who thought he knew everything and didn’t listen very well. The other characters weren’t involved enough for me to get to know any of them. Even Captain Scott had what felt like a small cameo. I liked what little I saw of Jez’s father, but he wasn’t around very much. The action-packed plot pretty much dominated the novel, leaving little room for character development or world-building.
Some books written for younger readers transcend their age group and appeal to everyone. Harry Potter was one of these. I wouldn’t classify THE DEAD GENTLEMAN as one that parents will be snatching out of their kids’ grasps. This book was written for middle-grade readers, and as I said before, I think it will appeal to both boys and girls. If you have a child or a young friend with a voracious appetite for books, slip this on their stack. They’ll likely find it to their taste.