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Dominion

by Shane Arbuthnott

Molly Stout lives in a world that is either a polluted dystopian future with King George V on the British throne; the Victorian past with a steampunk twist and lots of rivets but no electronics; a strange version of Newfoundland; or a parallel universe that incorporates all of these possibilities in a highly complicated piece of world building, predicated on the essential supposition that machines have souls.

dominion shane arbuthnottMolly is a 14-year-old engineer on her father’s airship – a “harvester” craft that sails high above the earth catching spirits and selling them for a profit. She is particularly attuned to the soul of the airship’s engine, but she’s keeping that a secret from her father and her older twin brothers.

Molly’s life takes a turn when she starts to get wind of the evil designs that lie behind her family’s way of making a living and, indeed, of her whole society. This central moral question (think parable of the slave trade) and Molly’s heroic rebellion against everything she has been brought up to believe and value is at the heart of an action-packed narrative. The derring-do is non-stop. Molly shares with cartoon characters a quality of instant physical healing: one moment blood is running down her neck from a scalp wound, the next minute she’s fine and dandy. She is also prone to wrapping up a near-death experience with a wry retort. After a terrifying encounter with a ferratic (a kind of mechanical pit-bull) she thinks, “Well, I guess that could have gone worse. It didn’t kill me.”

The strange world the novel inhabits is inventive and loads of fun, but demands concentration and the willingness to learn a new vocabulary. Servitors, also known as cognizants, are small robots that function as something between servants, pets, and Philip Pullman’s daemons. They don’t speak, but communicate by gestures and, when things get desperate, in writing. The complexities lead to a few instances of information dumping. For instance, after Molly flies for the first time, using a kind of magical jetpack, the reader is dying to find out what the event feels like: it surely must be one of the most exhilarating things a human can experience. Instead, we are offered an explanation of how weight distribution on the flying docks is managed.

Comparisons to other middle-grade fantasies are inevitable. The airships remind us of Kenneth Oppel’s Airborn, as do the tricky ways that the heroes get out of trouble (Molly devises her own zipline on the spur of the moment in one memorable scene). The retro style of the telling, which includes lots of nautical terminology, is reminiscent of Iain Lawrence’s sea adventure stories, which in turn hearken back to Robert Louis Stevenson. The title and the underlying social commentary about the effect of colonization and slavery bring Terry Pratchett’s Nation to mind, although Dominion is not
as taut in its plotting.

In one respect, however, Dominion is unusual, if not unique. The roustabout world of these soldiers of fortune is gender equal. Heroes and rogues can be male or female, the engineer is as likely to be a woman as a man. Pronouns are scattered equally. The spirits transcend gender, leading to a funny conversation about the limits of pronouns in English. Molly, motherless and hampered by a strong moral sense, has a tough row to hoe, but not because she’s a girl. In one scene she performs a brave, nick-of-time rescue of the first officer, and the fact that both characters are female is a matter of no importance. How refreshing.

Also refreshing in this age of keypads is author Shane Arbuthnott’s obvious love of hand tools. In the explosive final scene, Molly essentially saves the world. How? She uses a wrench.