D. M. Cornish is truly an unsung hero of children’s literature. I’ve been wanting to read this series since I worked at Barnes & Noble and my eye was caught by the beautiful cover art. What I didn’t know at the time was that Cornish did all of the artwork himself. The novel includes, in addition to the cover art, illustrations of character, diagrams of various uniforms, ships, and extremely well-done, detailed maps of the Half-Continent–the world that Cornish spent years dreaming up.
Book 1: Foundling, tell the story of Rossämund, an orphan boy whose girl’s name gets him in a lot of trouble with his peers. He dreams of a life on the vinegar seas around the Half Continent, but when it comes time for him to leave the “marine society” where he has grown up since his abandonment as an infant, he is drafted as a Lamplighter in the service of the Emperor. It is a disappointment to him, as it’s a life spent on land. The only redemption is that, out in the wilds between fortified cities and along the road where he’ll be maintaining lamps, monsters hunt their human enemies.
From the moment he leaves the shelter of the marine society, he is duped and misguided by the world and its inhabitants. He is kidnapped by a man claiming to be his guide to his new life, when in fact he is a smuggler of contraband creatures. After his escape he meets Europe, a renowned monster hunter who has altered her body to be able to fight them more effectively. Their ensuing adventures together transform Rossämund from a green boy who only dreams of adventures to a young man who’s had them, and he bravely faces monsters both large and small with a quick mind and a straight sense of right and wrong. The book ends when he finally reaches his destination and is about to begin his duties as a Lamplighter. I have no problem revealing this, as there’s really no surprise ending. The novel does not end. It merely pauses before the next book. As as there were about 150 pages of Appendixes (glossary, maps, diagrams, etc.), the end quite took me by surprise.
There are several things I love about this book, but they mostly all come back to the creativity and care that Cornish took with his dream world. One gets the impression from many novels that the author creates a plot and then forms the world around that plot, making it seem patchy and incomplete. Cornish spent incredible amounts of time composing drawings, dreaming up a dialect, creating maps, and building character profiles so that, by the time he began creating the plot the world felt entirely real. There is a wholly unique feel to the book, part fantasy and part science fiction. Really, I would say it’s closest to steampunk. Rossämund is a character that the reader can really get behind. He is a kind boy. He has courage and does what needs to be done, even when he is desperately afraid. His moral compass is extraordinarily true, and he feels guilt at the imprisonment and slaughter of harmless monsters, and elation at the victory of right over wrong. His loyalty is unwavering to those who protect him, even when he is unsure of their moral compass’ orientation.
The world in which he lives is full of surprises and possibilities. Rather like our world in the Victorian age, except crawling with monsters and surrounded by seas so poisoned by minerals and salts as to have turned strange colors and become hazardous to men’s skin. Rossämund is a fairly normal human being, but there are others who has strange boxes affixed to their faces so as to enhance their senses of smell and sight or have their internal organs altered or replaced in order to fight monsters. As in our world, there are pirates and smugglers, although these deal in contraband monster flesh and the perverse human creations that are fabricated from them. At some point the reader sees a ship whose engines are driven by living muscle tissue, reminding me of Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan series. I thoroughly enjoyed my break from the norm of paranormal romance or dragons and fairies (though I do love my fairies…). I highly recommend this novel to anyone who is a fan of YA or steampunk. I’d love to see this author gain in popularity.