Book Review: The Unnaturalists, by Tiffany Trent

Vespa Nyx is obsessed with Unnatural creatures, and longs to live out her days in the depths of academia, cataloguing them and preparing them for display. Sadly, her father has other ideas, and they involve finding a suitable match for her and bundling her off into marriage whether she likes it or not. To the surprise of both of them, the world around them has entirely different plans which launch Vespa into a headlong adventure that turns her beliefs about society upside down.

The Unnaturalists is a fantastically fun novel, and I raced through it in just a few hours one day without stopping because I had to know what happened next, and I was having so much fun with the characters. It’s set in a steampunk London where science rules supreme, and religion is something viewed with deep skepticism and confusion. Vespa is part of the dashing young set, but as a girl, she faces discrimination in a community where only men are supposed to be scholars, and women should settle into quiet, respectable marriages.

The mythology of the text fascinates me, and I love how Trent integrated little pieces of history, mythology, and the world into the book very smoothly, though her depictions of Traveler culture did sometimes verge into stereotypes, sadly. In a world where people believe firmly in science but fantasy creatures exist, people have decided that the Unnaturals around them have no emotions, critical thinking skills, or cognitive abilities. They’re nothing more than tools for exploitation, rather than individuals with their own lives, dreams, and desires. Vespa’s operated under that assumption for her entire life, and she’s shocked when she learns that’s not the case, and that she’s a witch, something that puts her at significant social risks.

This is a society where magic is tightly controlled by the Empress, who has outlawed the practice of magic by members of the general public. She controls the resources and the processes used to power her magic and fuel the city’s operations, right down to the mysterious Myth, the substance used for energy across New London. Yet, there’s more to her than meets the eye, and the same goes for the scientists who are supposedly conducting important research. Vespa ends up square in the middle of a complicated deception that has the potential to destroy the city and everyone she loves.

In The Unnaturalists, Trent’s created a very dark, murky world, one where an industrial revolution has been built on the backs of mythological creatures and almost everyone is oblivious to that fact. I like that she takes Vespa down some very dark paths in the book; this is a text with a seriously high body count, and some very disturbing, dark scenes including vicious attacks and discrimination against the Tinkers, as Travelers are known in the book.

We’re not talking sweetness and light here, even though the book has its fair share of romantic intrigues and of course the obligatory ball to keep us entertained. At no time are we allowed to forget that the characters are in mortal danger for being who they are, and for being ensnared in the middle of a plot that’s much larger than them.

Vespa herself is whipsmart and adventurous, with a side of being pretty darn good at investigating, but not perfect. Some of the plot points she misses are blatantly obvious and you want to scream at Vespa in a few scenes; I had to keep remembering that as the reader, I knew more than she did about her world so her actions totally made sense. Her love interest is a little more flat, sadly, and my favourite male character is probably Cyrus Reed, the Tinker who opens Vespa’s mind to the huge world around her and the truths of where New London gets its power, and who the Empress really is.

Trent has avoided some of the more noxious strong female character stereotypes, some of which seem to serve to undermine these characters by making them unrealistic and ridiculous. Vespa’s not magically intuitive and good at everything, and she has her own failings. She’s also vulnerable and scared, and when she gets backed into corners, sometimes she makes heartrending decisions that will turn out to bite her in the behind later. As she processes the world around her and the information flooding her mind, sometimes she has trouble connecting the dots, or feels utterly overwhelmed and helpless.

It’s a more realistic reflection of how the world can feel when everything is being upended around you. Rather than just seamlessly going with the flow and adapting, Vespa has some rough patches, and she needs help from the people around her to navigate them. In the collision of worlds, cultures, and people that is The Unnaturalists, Vespa may be at the core of the action, and she may be the key to something major, but she’s well aware that she can’t succeed alone.

Remarkably in an era when every YA novel seems determined to be a setup for a series, The Unnaturalists really stands on its own. While Trent could keep writing in this world, she doesn’t need to, and I have a certain affection for authors who are willing to write a standalone book and focus on making it tight and elegant rather than trying to write with an eye to future entries in a series. You feel satisfied at the ending, though it is a tad rushed, and the story resolves well, instead of leaving you feeling like you bought half a book. Not every book needs to be a trilogy, or a series, and it’s perfectly fine to admit that!