The intelligent automaton—one of the many symbolic Others in sci-fi literature. When characterized sympathetically, the automaton represents humanity without being human, the lone outsider puzzling the world around it. The Othered Automaton pops up in steampunk lit too, like Boilerplate and Mattie from The Alchemy of Stone. In both cases, the automaton finds camaraderie with people who feel similarly alienated by the societies they live in; Boilerplate had his Buffalo Soldiers, Mattie had her mechanic dark-skinned lover Sebastian. But what Jaclyn Dolamore brings to the table is a new perspective to this relationship in her fantasy steampunk novel Magic Under Glass: the protagonist is not the Othered Automaton, but that of Nimira, the human Other seeking her fortune in a strange land.
In this YA novel, Nimira travels west from her Middle East-inspired homeland of Tiansher to the Victorian-esque Lorinar, a land where an uneasy conflict is brewing between it and the neighboring fairy realm. Lorinar, however, isn’t as welcoming as she had hoped. Its citizens are familiar with Tiansher only as the “exotic Tassim” and Nimira can only find work at a cheap sideshow as a “trouser girl” singing her country’s native songs to ignorant audiences. That is, until she meets Hollin Parry, a sorcerer who takes her in to sing alongside his clockwork automaton. The previous girls Parry had hired left, claiming the machine to be haunted. Nimira discovers, however, that the automaton is not a possessed machine, but an elaborate prison. Inside is Erris, a fairy prince long thought dead. Now, Nimira must figure out a way to free Erris before war breaks out between Lorinar and the fairy world.
What makes Nimira so memorable is her resilience against the daily prejudice and ignorance she faces. What makes Magic Under Glass commendable, however, is the fact that her outsider struggle is not the point of the novel, but another layer of social complexity that Nimira must navigate through in order to accomplish her goals. Nimira, for her part, does not forsake her identity to assimilate into Lorinar culture: she carries the world of Tiansher inside her, drawing strength from her memories of home. On the other hand, she also has to deal with those who try to exoticize and diminish her existence, such as when she’s asked to perform in her “trousers” instead of her elegant Lorinar dress during an important performance. Her complicated feelings toward her employer are another case in point: echoes of Jane Eyre and Mr. Rochester resonate in the relationship between Nimira and Parry, but I along with Nimira questioned the root of Parry’s fondness toward his “Tassim” girl.
Her position as a foreigner in a Western-based culture is more interesting to read than the reverse—that of the “Eurocentric” traveler in the “Othered” foreign land, which is more frequently represented in fantasy. Moreover, her background paves the way for her sympathy toward fairies and Erris. Nimira also wins major points for being a strong character that doesn’t wait passively for the action to happen, yet she can still show vulnerability and cry when she needs to. All the women in Magic Under Glass are sharply defined; only the villainous Miss Rashten seems a bit flat. Also Parry, as misguided as he is, earned my sympathy.
The magic of this novel is a bit sketchy for my tastes, and I’d rather have more detail about its system and details about the fairy world. The vagueness I encountered can be explained by the open ending that’s the set-up for a second book. Usually I’d be upset by this, but I’m more than willing to wait for the next installment of Nimira’s journey.
On another note, I first heard of this novel because of the US cover’s whitewashing controversy, and after reading the book, I find it even more insulting to the reader and disrespectful to the author that Nimira was represented as a light-skinned white girl instead of her dark complexion. However, the YA blogosphere unleashed a furious wave in response, culminating in Bloomsbury’s announcement that the hardcover jacket will be changed immediately. That is why, for the curious, I linked the UK cover instead of the US one for now. I can’t wait to see the revised cover, though.
ETA: March 5th 2010: The new US cover is now in! And it is quite lovely. ^__^