Friday, February 21, 2014

REVIEW: Shanghai Sparrow by Gaie Sebold

Shanghai Sparrow Shanghai Sparrow by Gaie Sebold
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

For a historical fantasy that contain “Formidable Devices, Fay, Etheric Science, Espionage, Opium, Murder and Bartitsu” — exciting stuff, it was restrained. Blech. Fantasy is supposed to be fantastic, not restrained. I found the book lacking in many ways.

+ the characters

I liked Eveline from the start. She was clever and wisely distrustful. She didn’t let the bad guys break her composure. She didn’t need anyone to tell her how much danger she was in. She knew when she was being bullshited and knew how to bullshit back. In short, she had a functional brain, unlike the many YA main characters I have read recently (Cress, The Seers, Cold Fury, The Pirate's Wish, and Altered to name a few).

I had only one gripe with Eveline, and it’s really more of a grip with the plot than with the heroine. I didn’t expect her to succeed at every turn, but at the climax I wished she had the upper hand. I wished it was pure wit that saved the good guys, not by convenient luck and improvisation. I wanted Eveline to be the heroine in her full glory, but instead she got nudged out of the limelight.

I also liked Beth, Eveline’s friend. Usually, the geek sidekick is a guy, but it was Beth instead, and I found it very refreshing the geek sidekick was a girl for a change. Along with Madeleine, I loved how there were women scientists and how they played a big role towards the end. What I did not love were how the scientists were passive, particularly at the rising action. If Eveline was absent, Beth and Madeleine were up the creek without a paddle.

Speaking of helpless female characters, there were too many for my liking. For a book eulogizing women’s empowerment, it seemed to love the damsel in distress trope. Thankfully, the plot lines for Treadwell and Charlotte wrapped up quickly and kept the angst down.

I hated Holmforth’s viewpoint. He was a big sack of self-loathing and prejudices. Being in his head, even though it was only 3rd person, pushed my limit for the foul character. I had to skim his viewpoint to salvage my enjoyment with the book. Thankfully, his viewpoint ebbed towards the middle of the book and didn’t rise back till the rising action. Just like how the heroine was nudged out of the limelight, so too was Holmforth in his role as the main bad. As a result, his comeuppance did not feel as satisfactory as it should have been. It was more like an afterthought really.

As for Liu, I wanted to like him, but the guy was too mysterious. Mysterious Liu is mysterious. I recognized that was the intention, but it really impeded me from getting to know him. I couldn’t get any sense of him other than the fact that he wasn’t an enemy of Eveline’s. At least, not intentionally. Plus, it didn’t help that he was around Eveline’s age. I kept thinking of him as her love interest. You know you read too many YA when you automatically assign any boy whom the heroine immoderately interacts with as the heroine’s love interest. Finally, it bothered me that the one important Asian character in the entire book and he was mysterious and exoticized.

The only characters who were more mysterious than Liu were the Folks, which the book called the faeries. And they weren’t mysterious as they didn’t have any character development. Throwing out a couple ubiquitous details such as how the Folks have magic and how they’re immortal does not constitute character development. Despite what a big deal they were, the Folks were never more than hazy, shadowy background characters.

+ the plot

I hated the long ass flashback at the third of the book. Seriously, it was really long. It fucking took up 16% of the book. Yes, I counted. I liked Eveline but I did not need to learn in minute detail how she lost her bourgeois family and became a hardened street urchin. I wanted Eveline’s backstory but I did not want it in one constipated infodump of a giant sob story. No. Just no.

In regard to the setting, the sense of England was strong, but the sense of China was pitifully weak. Even though the setting alternated between England and China, it was set in England like 80-90% of the time. The few scenes that did take place in China honestly felt like they could have taken place anywhere else. The book would have been better off set entirely in England and in a Chinatown of England. “Far Eastern steampunk” my ass.

Well, at least there was steampunk because there was not much of anything else. The espionage was underwhelming. The etheric science was nebulous. The historical side was thin. It’s like expecting real fruit juice but receiving some carbonated shit made with 10% real juice. This reader was highly disappointed.


I rate Shanghai Sparrow 2-stars for it was okay. The book was a classic case of all that glitters was not gold. The only thing the book got right was the dynamic heroine. On the bright side, this book was still better than the Spiritwalker trilogy by Kate Elliott beginning with the fact that the book isn’t a dragged out trilogy.

Book Description

Shanghai Sparrow is a Far Eastern steampunk tale of espionage, distant empires and thrilling exploits, with a dynamic heroine.

The British Empire is at war, both within and without.

Eveline Duchen was once a country child, living a life of privilege, touched by the magic that still clings to the woods and fields of Victorian England. Now she is a street urchin in a London where brutal poverty and glittering new inventions exist side by side, living as a thief and con-artist under the wing of the formidable Ma Pether.

Caught in an act of deception, Eveline is faced with Mr Holmforth, a gentleman in the service of Her Majesty’s Government, who offers her a stark choice. Transportation, or an education – and utter commitment to Her Majesty’s Service - at Madam Cairngrim’s school for female spies. The school’s regime is harsh. Eveline has already learned harder lessons. She plans to take advantage of everything they can teach her, then go her own way.

But in the fury of the Opium Wars, the British Empire is about to make a devil’s bargain. Eveline’s choices will change the future of her world, and reveal the truth about the death of her sister Charlotte.

Shanghai Sparrow is set in an alternative England and China. It contains Formidable Devices, Fay, Etheric Science, Espionage, Opium, Murder and Bartitsu and may not be suitable for those of a delicate disposition.

Goodreads | Amazon

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