Can she write a world gone wrong?
A certain pen, a certain book, and a certain person can craft entirely new worlds through a branch of science called scriptology. Elsa comes from one such world that was written into creation by her mother—a noted scriptologist.
But when her home is attacked and her mother kidnapped, Elsa is forced to cross into the real world and use her own scriptology gifts to find her. In an alternative Victorian Italy, Elsa finds a secret society of pazzerellone—young people with a gift for mechanics, alchemy, or scriptology—and meets Leo, a gorgeous mechanist with a smart mouth and tragic past. She recruits the help of these fellow geniuses just as an assassin arrives on their doorstep.
An Imprint Book
"This debut novel is fully realized steampunk-fantasy, offering an alternate history that deftly and creatively adopts the politics of 19th-century Italy to create a compellingly unique world. . . . Exciting and original." —Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"In the meantime, Clare spins an entertaining adventure tale that also addresses colonialism, inclusion, and musings on the nature of being. . . . This novel is a source of serious fun; a must-have." —School Library Journal, starred review
“Clare's debut is built upon an intriguing premise... A solid series starter featuring a competent, flawed heroine that’s built for sf fans.” —Booklist
“There’s much more to uncover in the political machinations of each world, and a gasp-worthy ending ensures a sequel.” —BCCB
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No great mind has ever existed without a touch of madness.
1891, the scribed world of Veldana
Elsa crouched beside the tide pool, the hem of her skirt gathered over her arm to keep it off the algae-slick rocks. A new species of starfish had emerged, but whether it would persist in the world or not was an open question. Elsa pulled on her clockwork glove and activated the stability sensors in the fingertips, then gently lifted the starfish out of the water with her other hand.
The creature was quite lovely, orange and long-limbed and prickly against her skin, though Elsa tried not to get too attached just yet. New species sometimes destabilized and ceased to exist. She waved her hand over the starfish, and the mechanical innards of the glove buzzed against her palm, tiny gears whirring. After a minute, the indicator light on the back of the glove flicked on: green, for stable. Elsa let out the breath she'd been holding, relieved.
Then the starfish imploded in her hand, folding in on itself and disappearing with a soft pop.
Belatedly, the indicator light switched from green to red. Unstable.
"You don't say," she muttered to the glove. "Useless bit of scrap."
Elsa's mother would not be pleased — Jumi took special pride in the emergence of new species. She scowled at the glove as she pulled her hand out. It had never given her a false positive like this before, but a stable species should not cease to exist that quickly. She hoped it was a malfunction. The alternative would be much worse — if the problem wasn't the glove, then something had gone seriously wrong with the most recent expansions to their world.
The brass finger-joints of the glove had leaked lubricant onto her hand. She hung the glove from her belt and wiped her fingers on her apron, smudging greasy streaks down the pale cloth. Then she stood and hastily picked her way around the tide pools, the rocks rough against the bare soles of her feet, and she trudged up the narrow strip of sand between the sea and the shore cliffs.
After she retrieved her flat-soled leather shoes from where she'd left them at the trailhead, Elsa decided she should do a quick walk-through of the whole expansion before returning to the village to report to Jumi. She turned back to walk the length of the beach, which was longer than it used to be. Jumi had added a new section during her latest revisions to the world.
Perhaps a kilometer out to sea, the Edgemist hung like a gray curtain, running parallel to the shore. The Edgemist defined the boundaries of existence, and Elsa took comfort in the familiarity of its presence, even if it was farther away thanks to the most recent expansion. Veldana was a fabricated world, but it was Elsa's home, and she preferred the Edgemist to the endless horizons of Earth.
Up ahead, the cliffs curved outward and the Edgemist angled toward the shore. Though she couldn't see it from her vantage point on the beach, Elsa knew the two would meet somewhere, pinching off the sea. Along with the new cliffs there was a new trail, snaking up the side in a series of tight switchbacks. She was almost at the trailhead when the Edgemist, hanging close on her left, began to shift, and the movement caught her attention. She stopped short and whirled around to stare at it, a cold fear seeding in her stomach.
The mottled purple-gray patterns of the Edgemist, usually calm, now churned like angry storm clouds. Veldana only had mild rains, but Elsa had seen a real thunderstorm once in Paris, when she'd accompanied her mother on a trip to Earth. She remembered how the clouds hunkered low and menacing over the city, darkening the gaslit streets, and rain lashed the windowpanes until they rattled in their casings. She'd been eight and terrified, and this was the feeling that welled up in her now, seeing the Edgemist writhe before her.
A breeze picked up, tossing strands of black hair across Elsa's face and carrying with it the salt-and-decay scent of low tide.
Could this be an aftereffect of the most recent changes? Had Jumi expanded Veldana too quickly and somehow destabilized the boundaries of the world?
The breeze shifted direction, carrying the muffled sound of shouts from somewhere above. Could a person somehow be causing the disturbance? Elsa turned and ran to the trailhead, stopping only to shove her feet into her shoes before rushing up the switchbacks. The path wove between the narrow, twisted trunks of Aleppo pines and squat, thick holly oaks. She followed as it bent to the left, eventually spitting her out onto a long, grassy meadow bounded on one side by forest and on the other by the gray wall of the Edgemist.
The shouts belonged to a gaggle of boys from the village. They were throwing pebbles at the Edgemist, trying to see if they could penetrate the invisible force that held matter inside the world. Some of the pebbles rebounded off the Edgemist as if off a wall, landing in the grass, while others passed silently through and disappeared forever. Here, too, the Edgemist swirled like eddies in a fast-flowing river.
Elsa heaved an irritated sigh. Surely, this must be the cause. As Jumi always said, coincidence was the assumption of a lazy mind.
"Jumi just made those rocks," she said loudly in Veldanese.
The boys whirled around. One of the younger ones let out a frightened yelp, and another clapped a hand over his friend's mouth.
The eldest was her once-friend Revan, now too broad at the shoulders to really be called a boy. "What's the big deal? They're just pebbles."
"You're destroying part of the world. It's the principle of the thing." She turned her gaze on the younger ones. "Now run on home before I tell Jumi and she erases you out of the worldbook!"
The children squealed and ran for the trailhead. Revan folded his arms, annoyed. "You shouldn't scare them like that."
"Oh? How should I scare them?" Elsa said, eyebrows raised. "They need to learn to respect Veldana, and you're not helping any, encouraging these stupid games."
"While I'm sure you find Jumi's squirmy little sea creatures thoroughly enthralling, the rest of us have to make our own fun."
That was the way it was among the children: her versus the rest of them. Revan's mother, Baninu, was as close to a friend as Jumi had. Baninu hoped their children would someday marry, and this more than anything else had driven the wedge between Elsa and Revan, for she did not plan to marry. Ever.
"Just ... find something else. Don't do this again," Elsa said coldly.
Revan stared at her like he was memorizing the face of a stranger. Elsa felt a sharp twinge of regret, but she turned away so he would not see it in her face.
The vanished starfish and the Edgemist's strange behavior still nagged at her. A few pebbles shouldn't have caused that instability all on their own. Best to rush straight home and consult Jumi.
* * *
The village lay nestled in a valley, bisected by a rocky-bottomed creek that emptied into the sea — now that there was a sea. The shallow banks were lined with moss, and Elsa's shoes sank into the springy stuff as she hurried upstream.
She crossed a little wooden bridge and wove her way between the scattered cottages with their dark thatched roofs and whitewashed wattle-and-daub walls. Past the gentle slope of the hill was the cottage she shared with her mother. There was a vegetable garden along the side and a chicken coop behind, and as Elsa reached for the door she reminded herself that one needed weeding and the other needed sweeping.
The cottage itself had one large room on the ground floor and a loft for sleeping space. Hearing the door latch, Jumi glanced up from her writing table.
Looking at Jumi was like looking in a mirror that showed the future. Elsa's skin was a shade darker, bronze-brown to her mother's sienna tan, but they shared the black hair, clear green eyes, and even the shape of their faces: strong cheekbones sweeping low over an expressive mouth and sharp chin. Elsa took pride in the similarity, and if anyone saw parts of her father reflected in her, they did not dare to say. She herself had no idea what he had looked like when he was alive, and this was one of the few ignorances she felt no desire to correct.
"Elsa, dear. You're back early," Jumi observed.
Elsa came around the table to look at what her mother was working on. Jumi was scribing in a large worldbook — one that did not look familiar to Elsa, though she couldn't be sure since it was open to a mostly blank page.
"What's this?" Elsa said, curious.
"It's our freedom," Jumi said.
Elsa eyed her mother, wondering if she could press for a less cryptic answer. Veldana had been created by one of those self-superior European scriptologists, a man named Charles Montaigne, who had treated the Veldanese as subjects of an experiment. The damage he wrought to the Veldanese language alone had taken Jumi years to correct after she learned the scientific discipline of scriptology and negotiated Veldana's independence. How, exactly, she had wrested control of the world from Montaigne was a subject Jumi always skirted around.
"What do you mean?" Elsa asked.
Jumi did not answer. Instead, she set her fountain pen aside and brushed her fingers across one thick off-white page, a soothing gesture, the way another person might stroke a nervous animal. "You'll be seventeen next month. A grown woman. I think it's time you have access to the Veldana worldbook. It will be your job to care for our world someday, and you're skilled enough now to take a more active role in the expansions."
Elsa felt a swell of pride. Nothing mattered more than being worthy of Jumi's approval, worthy of inheriting her role as caretaker of Veldana. "Thank you, Mother."
Jumi smiled one of her rare, soft smiles and put a hand to Elsa's cheek, a gesture of affection that would have been embarrassing if they hadn't been alone. "I could not have asked for better," she said.
Elsa covered Jumi's hand with her own, holding it against her face for a moment before letting it go. Flustered by her mother's praise, she wasn't sure what to say, so she changed the subject. "I think we might have a problem with the newest revisions. I'm not sure. ..." Despite her earlier threats, Elsa found herself reluctant to betray the boys to Jumi. She decided to leave them out of the story. "The Edgemist was behaving strangely. It looked disturbed. And there was this starfish that seemed stable, then it up and vanished right out of my hand."
Jumi frowned. "I scribed the expansion hours ago. The Edgemist should have settled away to its new location by now."
"I know." Elsa shrugged. "Perhaps it was nothing, but —"
There was a loud crack, like the sound of a branch breaking. The room began to fill with smoke, and Elsa covered her nose and mouth with her sleeve. A sickly-sweet smell crept through the fabric as she ran for the door, but she stepped on something and slipped, and the hard slate floor came up to meet her, knocking the wind from her lungs. The smoke was making her dizzy, too dizzy to get back up. Somewhere nearby Jumi coughed and wheezed, but Elsa couldn't catch sight of her through the smoke.
Her thoughts seemed to be slowing down, like her brain was turning sticky as honey, her skull heavy. Her head dropped and her eyelids closed.
* * *
On Earth, in the city of Pisa, Leo Trovatelli was dreaming.
In the dream he was on a walkway beside a canal with his brother, Aris. Mist clung to everything, the way it always had in the early mornings of Venetian winter. Aris flashed him a knowing grin, then spun around and sprinted off down the walkway. Leo tried desperately to catch up, but he was a child again, and his short legs weren't fast enough. Aris pulled farther and farther away, fading into the mist. The cobblestones beneath Leo's feet shook, throwing him off balance, and he fell over the edge into the black waters of the canal.
Leo jerked awake, but the shaking didn't stop. He was slouched awkwardly in the armchair in his bedroom; he'd meant to rest his eyes for only a minute and now the whole room was vibrating. An earthquake? He'd felt his share of earthquakes, and this was somehow softer and faster, more frenetic, as if it were tuned to a different wavelength.
Knickknacks jounced around on his shelves, clattering against the wood. Something fell to the floor and shattered. Through the half-open balcony doors, he heard someone shout in the cloister garden below.
After a moment the shaking stopped, but it left behind a sick, hollow feeling in his gut. Somewhere in the world, something had gone wrong.
He shook his head and pushed himself out of the chair. Aunt Rosalinda had always discouraged his superstitious feelings, and if she were here, she'd tell him it was nothing. Better to focus on the practicalities, like cleaning up whatever the earthquake had broken.
He knelt beside the shattered ceramic. There were so many pieces he didn't recognize it at first, but then he found part of the eye socket and realized: it was the carnevale mask, one of the few possessions he'd brought with him from Venezia. From his childhood with Aris.
This wasn't a sign, he told himself. This wasn't a sign of anything.
Reading Shelley's Frankenstein, I have to wonder: Am I not the villain of Montaigne's story? Am I not his monster? Or am I real enough for this to be my story, and he the villain?
— personal notes of Jumi da Veldana, 1886
Elsa swam her way back to consciousness through a honey-thick sea of heavy dreams. When she finally forced her eyelids to peel themselves open, she was greeted by a splitting headache and a unique perspective on the underside of Jumi's writing table.
"Ugh," she said, lifting a shaky hand to press against her temple. "Mother, what happened?"
No one answered.
"Mother?" Elsa pushed herself up to a sitting position. The writing chair was knocked over, and her mother's favorite fountain pen had rolled across the slate flooring, leaking a thin trail of blue-black ink.
Fear tightened her chest, but she had to keep a level head and figure out what was going on. Think, think! Elsa groped on the floor for the object she'd slipped on and came up with a small metal cylinder of some kind. She lifted it and sniffed carefully, confirming it as the origin of the sweet smoke. Some kind of gaseous chemical designed to induce sleep?
This was no accident. Someone had abducted her mother.
A thread of panic laced through Elsa, quickening her breath. She struggled to her feet, grabbing the edge of the writing desk to pull herself up. Gone, too, was the worldbook her mother had been scribing in. What did that mean? Was it valuable? Who could have taken her mother, and why?
Elsa bent over, hands on knees, breathing too fast. She was unaccustomed to the sensation of helplessness. She needed to figure out what to do; there had to be something she could do. Gather information, focus on the details, employ rational evaluation — this was the methodology Jumi had taught her, and so she forced herself to look up and observe.
Sunlight still filtered through the windows. How long had she been unconscious? Elsa scrambled for the door, her legs feeling wobbly and loose-jointed, and she peered outside to judge the time by the angle of the shadows. An hour, perhaps.
She might still be able to catch up with them. A portal from Veldana could only transport someone to the location on Earth where the Veldana worldbook was kept: the home of Charles Montaigne, the scriptologist who'd created her world. They could open a portal in the Edgemist anywhere along the boundaries of Veldana, but they could only arrive in Paris, France, inside Montaigne's study.
They'd taken Jumi's portal device, which had been sitting out on the writing table. Elsa clattered up the ladder to the loft, opened her mother's clothing chest, scooped out all the clothes, and lifted the false bottom. Jumi was nothing if not dedicated to precautionary measures.
Elsa reached into the chest to take out the spare portal device and slipped it into a pouch on her belt. Next she lifted the revolver, shook six bullets out of the ammunition box, and loaded the revolver. She threaded the holster onto her belt and settled the revolver snugly into it. They were all Earth objects; Veldana had no infrastructure for manufacturing. The revolver had been a gift from Alek de Vries, a scriptologist who had mentored Jumi. Elsa knew how to operate the gun but had never pointed it at anything alive; the thought that she might have to, now, gave her a queasy feeling.
Excerpted from "Ink, Iron, and Glass"
Copyright © 2018 Gwendolyn Clare.
Excerpted by permission of Imprint.
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