This book is set in an alternate history New York of 1877 and populated with a diverse and appealing cast of characters. It’s a fantasy, a battle of good vs. evil, and a coming of age tale. And it’s magical. It captured me almost instantly.
A force of evil is coming to New York, and his advance troops- a couple of supernatural beings- are planning on delivering the city to him. But they aren’t the only supernatural beings in the city, and when some of them get wind of the plot, a small group forms to stop them. It’s a diverse group: people with magical powers, teen aged orphans, and a journalist who actually existed, Ambrose Bierce. The teenagers risk their lives numerous times and have a huge learning curve to develop the skills that will allow them to take on the evil beings, but while they question their ability to do the job (and their sanity for trying it), they persevere. It’s a large cast of characters, but the main ones are Sam, a 15 year old card sharp, and Jinn, a young maker of explosives who travels with a fireworks show.
Milford tackles –lightly- some of the social issues of the day that would have affected the characters, like race and class prejudice. Jinn is a Chinese girl, Sam is poor, one character is black and poor, and one half black- but thankfully she has money. Not that that protects her entirely from the nastiness of bigots. There is also the issue of how poor Chinese girls could end up treated when there was no one to protect them, feet bound and used as slaves. These things are treated casually and not much is made of them -it’s just how it was then – but it’s there. The author has not tried to clean up the world of 1877 and make it look like 2012, and I think that’s a very good thing.
The characters are appealing and well done, and the plot is compelling, but Milford’s genius is in description. The places come alive with sounds, textures and smells. The magic becomes real in her hands, and I was reluctant to leave her world when the book ended.