July 16, 2012

Island of Doom: The Hunchback Assignments IV

by Arthur Slade
264 pp.
Ages 12+
July 17, 2012

In a November 30, 2011 post, I briefly reviewed all three books in Arthur Slade's phenomenal The Hunchback Assignments series from HarperCollins, having read them before I had even started this blog.  One of the few steampunk series for younger readers by Canadian authors, The Hunchback Assignments has been honoured with a variety of regional, national and international nominations and awards, including the Saskatchewan Young Adult Book Award (2010), the TD Canadian Children's Literature Award (2010 and 2011), YALSA Best Books for Young Adults (2011), and France's Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire (2011).  And, now, with Arthur Slade's final volume in the series, set for release tomorrow, it behooves me to revisit the earlier books in the series before tempting you with its newest and final offering.

Modo, the hunchback of the title, is a deformed young man who as a babe was abandoned and travelled with a circus show before being rescued by the mysterious Mr. Socrates.  Learning of the boy's ability to transform his appearance, Mr. Socrates has Modo trained in the physical and intellectual arts to act as an agent for the Permanent Association and thwart the nefarious schemes of the Clockwork Guild.

In the first book, the Clockwork Guild, directed by the mysterious Guild Master, has the mechanical-armed Miss Hakkandottir recruiting Dr. Hyde to build a machine powered by the anger of children.  During his assignment, Modo meets another young agent of Mr. Socrates, Octavia (Tavia) Milkweed, in whom he becomes interested.

In the second book, The Dark Deeps, Modo and Tavia's investigation has them playing married and looking underwater for the activities of the Clockwork Guild.  A beautiful French agent, Colette Brunet, sent on a similar mission, cooperates with Modo, and the two develop a fondness for one another.

In Queensland, Australia, Modo, Tavia, Mr. Socrates and others head for The Empire of Ruins to attempt to discover the nature of the God Face, an ancient temple harbouring treasure and the power to drive people mad, before the Clockwork Guild gets its mechanical hands on it.

With each book, Modo has endeavoured to complete his assignments effectively but, as he matures, he begins to question his relationship with Mr. Socrates and others.  The adventure in The Empire of Ruins has left Modo with many questions, especially after he is relegated to virtual house arrest in their new safe house in Montreal, as punishment for ignoring Mr. Socrates' orders to deliver the native people (who had accepted Modo's facial deformities as beautiful) to their battle deaths.  Moreover, while Tavia is tutored and trained daily, Modo considers Tavia's reaction to him when he showed her his true face.  While Tavia did not look away (as Colette Brunet had in The Dark Deeps), it had been difficult for her to meet his eyes, especially as he knows she is looking for a handsome prince.

Thinking about his relationships with Mr. Socrates and Tavia has Modo eager to pursue a missive from Colette Brunet indicating that she has found his French parents who are in danger.  Colette has discovered that members of the Clockwork Guild, specifically Lime, a thin, metal-toothed character, and Typhon, an obedient monster of a man with greenish-hued skin and numerous stitches, have been looking into Modo's heritage as well; in fact, Lime and Typhon kidnap Modo's mother and remove her by Miss Hakkandottir's airship to a secluded island.

Mr. Socrates calls Modo and Tavia back to Montreal and they all travel westward by train to a top-secret facility located within a naval base at Esquimalt.  Here Mr. Socrates unveils to them the 7th Dragoons Regiment of overgrown boys (saved from Dr. Hyde's machine of angry children) on steam-powered legs, with armoured bodies, and standing twelve feet tall! And, once Mr. Socrates' agent Footman learns the location of the Guild's island and Dr. Hyde's work is in resurrecting the dead and recreating them into indestructible monsters, like Typhon, they're on their way to save Modo's mother and stop the Clockwork Guild once more.

Though Arthur Slade expects readers to say good-bye to Modo in this last of The Hunchback Assignments books, he hasn't taken the easy way out with a finale in which all loose ends are tied up, all mysteries solved.  If you're expecting stars and balloons and pats on Modo's hunchback for a job well-done, you will be disappointed.  However, if you expect nothing less than another tension-filled adventure, with mechanical and surreal inventions, evil-minded characters, and some soul-searching by Modo and Tavia, then you will completely enthralled with Island of Doom.

As in our world, there's always some evil bent on abusing the vulnerable and keeping good people from their just rewards.  In Island of Doom, the evil is embedded in Arthur Slade's fantastic characters for whom he has crafted such defining natures: the heinous Lime and Miss Hakkandottir whose metallic body parts illuminate their heartless natures;  Dr. Hyde, the brilliant scientist who creates violence from metal and death; and the Guild Master, whose bespectacled unimpressive morph hides his destructive nature and drive for power above all else.  And yet, those characters with whom readers continue to empathize, specifically Modo and Tavia, with their bleak beginnings, always questioning their motives and abilities, will enjoy the opportunities to continue to become even better versions of themselves.  In a steampunk world, Arthur Slade has created the recognizable within the unimaginable, a fantastic feat in itself.   That said, I am ever naively hopeful that, with the ending that Arthur Slade has constructed here, we may revisit Modo, perhaps far beyond the deeps, ruins and doom of his life's mission thus far.

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