3 out of 4 stars
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A good book is a portal to another world, time, or dimension, and nowhere is this truer than in Laurel Anne Hill’s dark and gritty coming-of-age novel, The Engine Woman’s Light. Set in a strangely altered nineteenth-century California, Hill weaves a tale so vivid, so intricate, and so steeped in mysticism that it’s almost as though she’s a shaman herself, summoning the reader’s spirit into this multilayered world fraught with danger, betrayal, and—in the book’s parlance—a “helluva” lot of pain.
It is 1878. An old woman pulls off a daring escape from an asylum-bound train, disappearing into the wilderness with a foundling in tow. Nobody knows that she’s abetted by her late husband’s ghost, or that the baby she has named Juanita Elise Jame-Navarro is actually her great-granddaughter. Fast-forward 15 years. Juanita lives peacefully in the village of Promise, a sanctuary for the lost, the abandoned, and the unwanted. Now a mystic traveler, Juanita liaises with the Shadow World and serves as Promise’s ties to all other spirits that roam the earth. Juanita flourishes under the love and guidance of adoptive parents, friends, a mentor, and a devoted lover, but still, her Navarro ancestors reach out to her from beyond the grave. The spirits linger around her, manifesting in different forms, possessing objects, animals, and occasionally, Juanita herself.
When a great spirit entrusts Juanita with a mission to derail another asylum-bound train, her ancestors are keen to help. Enter Billy, a ghost tormented by the choices he’d made for the man he loved. Billy is also a locomotive engineer, and his expertise is key to the mission’s success—or so Juanita thinks. Despite Billy’s guidance, the plan goes terribly wrong and Juanita loses everything. Amidst her despair, an enigmatic pilgrim known only as Guide Man takes her under his wing. Who is he really? Why won’t he tell Juanita his real name? What’s his connection to the notorious Mendoza family and their devious patriarch, Antonio? And what has Billy got to do with everything? If Juanita were to survive to be a true “engine woman” and sabotage another train, she must first learn to outwit her opponents, to deceive, to betray…to kill, if she must. It doesn’t matter that she’s putting her life on the line, for as the spirits repeatedly intone, “A mystic dies when the Shadow World decrees.”
The plot runs thick throughout The Engine Woman’s Light, twisting and turning in unpredictable, shocking, and mind-blowing ways. Compared to many in this genre, this book is less about the destination and more about the journey. It’s not about a special girl’s heroic exploits to rescue the helpless and protect the innocent. Rather, it’s the tale of a young girl forced by circumstances to grow up too fast. The dreaded asylum referenced throughout the narrative merely provides some added context for the changes that Juanita undergoes. And she’s not alone in this. Every character is imbued with such life, nuance, and humanity that they command interest on their own. Even though their existence largely revolves around Juanita, they also evolve as the story progresses, giving many their much-needed (although not necessarily deserved) shots at redemption.
The Engine Woman’s Light delves into some pretty dark themes, particularly the vulnerabilities of the weak in a society ruled by the strong. Harassment, aggression, abuse, and rape are tackled to a great extent, balancing the perceptions of victims, perpetrators, and even the occasional bystanders. Sexual relations between men are also explored, but all occurrences of physical intimacy are framed within the boundaries of love, lust, and control. There are no wildly explicit scenes—or at least, none between men—but the recurring theme of control as the impetus for sex is quite uncomfortable to read, especially where Juanita is involved. However, Hill does nothing without good reason. By stripping all characters of any so-called plot armor, she effectively maneuvers them, Juanita and Antonio especially, to convey the darkest and most ironic twist in the book: the corruption of the innocent and the redemption of the corrupt.
Hill’s prose electrifies the senses, bringing the scent of smoldering tobacco (a signal of Billy’s presence), the image of honey mesquite trees, and the taste of tortilla, goat cheese, and red salsa right to the reader. The imageries are powerful, and Hill makes efficient use of every element—the animate, inanimate, and especially the dead—to create the many, many moments that take your breath away. By switching the narrative from Juanita’s first-person perspective to Billy’s third-person point of view—something that would have been confusing in the hands of a less talented writer—Hill makes the experience of spirit possession so much more visceral. Indeed, every word is a weapon in Hill’s masterful hands, and she wields her arsenal effortlessly to achieve her ends. If you’re anything like me, you’d be awed, appalled, and shaken to the core by the story’s conclusion.
I’m completely in love with Hill’s writing but not so much with the story. While Hill juggles the book’s paranormal, technological, and sociocultural elements very well, the depictions of love and sexual intimacy aren’t as strong as could be. The unpredictability of the plot suffers a little when Juanita’s romantic life is on the table, and the story falls prey to such irksome tropes as intimate healing and the May-December romance. This is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of Hill’s multifaceted story, but it’s enough to make the book a little less pleasant to read.
I rate The Engine Woman’s Light 3 out of 4 stars. Despite the cover and description, this book is definitely for mature readers only. And even within that subset, I’d recommend this book only to the bravest and the most adventurous of them all. Still, if you’re tired of fluffy coming-of-age stories and heroines clad in plot armors, then go ahead, open this book, and be transported to Juanita’s perilous reality. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
The Engine Woman's Light
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