Book review: The Golden Specific, S.E. Grove

Disclosure: This review is based on a copy of the book provided by the publisher. 

I really loved The Glass Sentencethe first book in this series, and I must say from the start that I’m equally thrilled with The Golden Specificfor entirely different and excellent reasons. I do love a good series, as it allows for much more complicated and immersive storytelling, and these books really deserve this kind of detailed, delicious treatment. What specifically intrigued me about this series, however, was that I liked the two books for very different reasons, and the narrative style shifted as the books grew up — both in the sense that Grove developed as a writer, as writers do between books, but also in the sense that very conscious writing and editorial choices were made to begin to age the books to reflect the growing maturity of the characters themselves.

Sometimes this is done in a very clunky way, and it’s obvious and uncomfortable. That wasn’t the case here — if anything, I was reminded of Harry Potter and the slow progression in the series from largely innocent, fun middle grade reading to books that border on young adult, with serious, dark themes. Harry Potter was designed to grow with the reader, and the same feels true of this series, where conscious decisions about character development and storytelling infuse the text.

This book expands upon the worldbuilding of The Glass Sentence, in which the world has fractured into a sea of ‘eras,’ tiny pockets of different times across the globe. Depending on where you are, you might be stepping from the Middle Ages to the Victorian Era to the Renaissance, for reasons researchers don’t fully understand. A complicated culture has arisen as society attempts to come to grips with the shifting framework of their world, and many differing opinions dominate discussions about how to cope; some, for example, think that time should be deliberately shaped to reflect the ‘truth’ discovered in historical texts scattered across the ages. Thus, dueling political parties in the United States battle over westward expansion versus creating treaties and a friendly relationship with indigenous people. Some ages are isolationist, with closed border policies, while others freely trade and exchange ideas and information.

This is a really amazing world and it’s beautifully crafted. One of the most central parts of the storytelling is mapmaking, as maps of different eras are complex enough, but some maps are more special than others. These maps allow people to not just see physical features, but to sift through different layers to understand the world on many levels, and the trained reader can also immerse herself in the map, actually sinking into the map itself to smell what there is to be smelled, to see a moment in time captured by the mapmaker.

The Golden Specific provides an explanation for what the ages are along with many other exciting pieces of information that I won’t divulge, because that would ruin the fun, but the central story involves our heroine, Sophia, taking to the road in search of her lost parents. She knows little about where they were when they disappeared and where they ended up, but she refuses to believe they’re dead, and she won’t rest until she finds them. As she quests halfway across the globe, meeting up with an entirely new crew of friends who guide her through a hostile and unexpected world where plagues leave people listless and uninterested in life, officials accuse people of witchcraft, and plants attempt to eat people alive, her friends back home are facing a war on another front.

Their battle, rather than being fantastical and somewhat beyond the realm of kenning, is a political one. It’s a struggle about which attitudes to governance will prevail, as well as one about murders and false accusations and exciting plots, because a book without a good murder plot is no fun at all. These characters are focused on staying alive while solving a murder and also thwarting an incredibly evil and incredibly sneaky politician who’s convinced that he can take control of a nation and shape its entire future.

In addition to switching back and forth between these narratives, we finally get to hear from Sophia’s parents themselves, through a diary written by her mother. The diary chronicles their travels and what happened to them after they left their daughter, and it’s one of the things Sophia is trying to find. As we watch events unfold in the diary, we see their parallels years later as she traces their footsteps, sometimes unwittingly crashing directly into the same dangers they did.

One of the things I particularly love about The Golden Specific is not just the varied voices between narratives, but also the completely different themes and elements. I love that one is rooted very much in fantasy and it’s filled with magical realism and peculiarities, including a map even more unique than the ones Sophia and her friends are used to. Another is solidly set in the real world (with some fantasy flickering around the edges), focusing more on politics and harsh realities. The other is almost dreamlike, setting the reader at a distance with a series of tales that seem ever-more unbelievable, like something that belongs in the Arabian Nights rather than the lives of real world people (or real world for values of that established in this mythos).

The ability to switch seamlessly between these narratives is really impressive, and as a reader, these transitions felt completely smooth. I wasn’t jarred by these twists and turns, which was a welcome change from some books that try this and fail utterly. And the ability to leap between different worlds and characters made The Golden Specific incredibly engaging, as I wanted to know when these different realities would converge to create something entirely new — a new kind of map, as it were, for Sophia to follow.