Official Review: The Engine Woman's Light

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inaramid
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Official Review: The Engine Woman's Light

Post by inaramid » 15 Jan 2018, 01:53

[Following is an official OnlineBookClub.org review of "The Engine Woman's Light" by Laurel Anne Hill.]
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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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Last edited by gali on 16 Jan 2018, 23:42, edited 1 time in total.
Reason: Fixed author name

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Post by kandscreeley » 16 Jan 2018, 15:19

I kind of agree about the cover. It makes me think of a young adult book. I'm glad I didn't read this one as I'm not sure I would have made it all the way through. I'm glad you were able to enjoy it! Thanks for all the information.
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Post by Sarkodie » 16 Jan 2018, 18:39

Laure Anne Hill is a brave and strong woman, i think this book should be inspiration to women around the world.

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Post by SPasciuti » 17 Jan 2018, 02:01

You do an amazing job of capturing the novel here. I'm admittedly much more interested in the technological, paranormal, and sociocultural aspects of the novel anyway, so I don't think I'll feel too upset about the love portion of the novel feeling contrived or inadequate. I think I'd definitley like to read this book after reading your review. Thanks for writing one!

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Post by inaramid » 17 Jan 2018, 02:31

kandscreeley wrote: ↑
16 Jan 2018, 15:19
I kind of agree about the cover. It makes me think of a young adult book.
It's just one of the ways in which the book totally catches the reader off-guard. I was like this when I started reading: :geek2: In the middle, I became: :o By the end, I was like: :shock:

Sarkodie wrote: ↑
16 Jan 2018, 18:39
Laure Anne Hill is a brave and strong woman
She's certainly ballsy for putting up a story like this. :)

SPasciuti wrote: ↑
17 Jan 2018, 02:01
I'm admittedly much more interested in the technological, paranormal, and sociocultural aspects of the novel anyway, so I don't think I'll feel too upset about the love portion of the novel feeling contrived or inadequate.
Ah, a brave soul! The book was actually described as "steampunk meets spirits," and considering everything, the book delivered on that count.

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Post by Gunnar Ohberg » 17 Jan 2018, 15:11

This is an absolutely wonderful review! Well done! It also sounds like a very intriguing book. I love fantasy lore that doesn't mind broaching very visceral or offensive topics (a la Dark Tower or Song of Ice and Fire), so this sounds like exactly the kind of book for me. Thank you for the very, very impressive review.

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Post by inaramid » 17 Jan 2018, 16:29

Gunnar Ohberg wrote: ↑
17 Jan 2018, 15:11
This is an absolutely wonderful review! Well done! It also sounds like a very intriguing book. I love fantasy lore that doesn't mind broaching very visceral or offensive topics (a la Dark Tower or Song of Ice and Fire), so this sounds like exactly the kind of book for me. Thank you for the very, very impressive review.
Thanks, Gunnar! There were some moments here that I was reminded of ASOIAF, but I didn't want to draw that comparison. At any rate, Martin's writing is a little more straightforward than Hill's, so all similarities end there.

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Post by CommMayo » 19 Jan 2018, 17:04

I love the way you wrote your review. You can really get the picture that this book isn't for shrinking violets!

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Post by inaramid » 19 Jan 2018, 19:47

CommMayo wrote: ↑
19 Jan 2018, 17:04
I love the way you wrote your review. You can really get the picture that this book isn't for shrinking violets!
:) Thanks, CommMayo! It's a good book--just a bit more hard-core than people might be expecting.

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Post by Darakhshan Nazir » 23 Jan 2018, 03:21

I find it really appealing. And I am always into such fantasy novels.
Admirable review!
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The books sounds like the kind to keep you awake at night...... due to 'eeriness!' Thanks for the thorough review. I enjoyed reading it.

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Post by Sarah Tariq » 24 Jan 2018, 02:25

The book sounds intriguing and full of adventures. I like your review very much. Do check out my review.
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Post by ButterscotchCherrie » 24 Jan 2018, 02:53

The descriptive writing that appeals to all the senses is clearly a strength here. It's interesting that Juanita is in thrall to the paranormal forces. What with the details and the setting, that is somehow reminiscent of Latin American magic realism. Thanks for the excellently written review!

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Post by inaramid » 25 Jan 2018, 11:11

Darakhshan Nazir wrote: ↑
23 Jan 2018, 03:21
I find it really appealing. And I am always into such fantasy novels.
Admirable review!
Thanks, Darakhshan Nazir! Do grab a copy of the book.

Cotwani wrote: ↑
24 Jan 2018, 01:16
The books sounds like the kind to keep you awake at night...... due to 'eeriness!' Thanks for the thorough review. I enjoyed reading it.
It has great shock value, that much I would say. The spirits were really more helpful than scary. :)

Sarah Tariq wrote: ↑
24 Jan 2018, 02:25
The book sounds intriguing and full of adventures. I like your review very much. Do check out my review.
It is. We follow the character from a baby until she becomes a woman. It's the adventure we're all still having--the growing-up adventure. :)

ButterscotchCherrie wrote: ↑
24 Jan 2018, 02:53
The descriptive writing that appeals to all the senses is clearly a strength here. It's interesting that Juanita is in thrall to the paranormal forces. What with the details and the setting, that is somehow reminiscent of Latin American magic realism. Thanks for the excellently written review!
There's a healthy splash of Indian and Mexican mysticism infused in here. Despite the many instances that I wanted to back away, I was still drawn to the book because of the writing.

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Post by gali » 02 Feb 2018, 08:17

Zetta and the ghost of her late husband rescue their great-granddaughter from a certain death. The baby later becomes a mystic traveler. And all that takes place in an alternate nineteenth-century California! Intriguing concept! I love steampunk and magic realism, so I will give it a chance despite the contrived parts. Thank you for the review!
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