Sunday, March 27, 2011

100 Books 20 - Brand Gamblin's THE HIDDEN INSTITUTE

As I was finishing up Brand Gamblin's follow-up to the excellent Tumbler, a thought kept occurring to me that I couldn't shake: If my buddy Brand (for buddy he is, on Twitter and from Balticon) keeps it up, he could be a 21st century L. Frank Baum. I can think of no other writer whose work can beguile a precocious pre-tween and a cynical old grown up to this degree. And I have evidence: my friend's ten-year-old daughter has read Tumbler at least three times since I gave to her in December, and all of my grown up friends who have read or listened to it seem to enjoy it just as much.

The comparison doesn't stop there, though. Brand tells charming and fanciful stories with a lot of wide-eyed innocence and just a smidgeon of jeopardy -- and the jeopardy is as likely to be social as it is physical. That's as true of Tumbler as it is of The Hidden Institute, though they are otherwise very different books: Tumbler concerns a young woman struggling to make her way as a beginning asteroid miner, while The Hidden Institute concerns a young man dealing with a more earthbound -- but also more fanciful -- situation.

At the heart of The Hidden Institute is a chillingly possible (and becoming more so almost daily) future society in which our own near class-wars have been mostly settled and the extreme divide between the haves and have-nots has gelled into what amounts to neo-feudalism. A new cadre of aristocrats has seized control of the economic and political levers of a neo-Victorian society that may remind readers of that in Neal Stephenson's staggering The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady's Illustrated Primer, but has a heaping helping of a slightly grittier version of Baum's Land of Oz thrown in.

Our hero is Cliffy, an extremely lower class youth who blunders into a bizarre chance to better himself when he witnesses and records what appears to be a murder at the hands of an aristocrat. To hush him up, the seeming criminal gives Cliffy entree into a special, extremely secret, school (no, not Hogwarts) where he can train up to be a gentleman, then seek placement as a higher-level servant in an aristocratic household -- even though even these rather menial posts are reserved for the lower nobility (in this world, aristocrats' servants must be nobly-born or at least ennobled by the King. And yes, this takes place in America!).

Cliffy's journey through the school, with his lessons in history and culture, his deportment lessons (one day it takes three hours to get through a bowl of soup!), self-defense classes, and his foray into bear polo -- hold the phone! BEAR POLO -- it's exactly as it sounds, it's polo played riding bears instead of horses! -- is peppered with very acute observations on what it really means to be an upperclass gentlemen: obeying your servant is at least as important as learning to affect that je ne c'est quoi.

And Cliffy's interactions with his servant Whister, a seemingly omnicompetent robot valet, that give The Hidden Institute most of its Ozziness. I couldn't help picturing Tik-Tok, though Whister does not seem to share in any of his predecessor's limitations; say half Tik-Tok, half Tin Woodman, yet never fearing water or rusting. Such a robot is probably impossible any time soon, but Whister is totally plausible within the narrative because he's just part of the craziness of the story.

But what happens, you might ask, besides the school thing? Quite a lot. Cliffy runs afoul of not one but two conspiracies, either of which could quite easily get him killed. I won't spoil these except to say that fans of the podcast have already nicknamed the distaff conspiracy the "Silk Goon Squad."

The only thing that spoils this delightful read (and this is only problem if, like me, you're sensitive to usage/grammar issues), is a problem that I cannot 100% lay on Gamblin's door because I strongly suspect it's a technology issue. While yes, there are occasional flubs that illustrate again how completely the English language's many homophones are the bane of modern writers who rely on computer spellcheckers("discrete" is used where "discreet" is meant a couple times, with unintentionally humorous consequences), what really drove me nuts is the preponderance of the wrong "its." Every instance I found where either "it's" or "its" might appear, it was always the former, the contraction for "it is" rather than the latter, the possessive form of "it" -- and usually it was the possessive that was wanted. It's a small quibble but it highlights something I think lots of writers and aspiring writers need to be wary of.

I'm not certain that Gamblin has an iPad but he runs with an iPad-loving crowd, and I know a lot of them enjoy writing novel drafts on the device. That means, of course, that a little feature, much complained of, called AUTOCORRECT is a factor, and one of that feature's most annoying habits is always insisting on changing "its" to "it's" because, you know, it knows better than you. I curse it often when I send tweets via my iPod Touch and shudder at the thought of trying to compose a novel-length piece while constantly fighting it off. This is just my theory about what happened though.

The screechy brake sound my brain made whenever I encountered that small issue (and I'm sure your brain has made it in some point reading this blog entry; I type really fast and don't always see my errors until after I've hit "publish") notwithstanding, I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Read it yourself and give it to a ten-year-old. Talk about the bear polo and you might even get your teenager to read it. Then you can all have a good sit-down and talk about economic injustice, opportunity and the importance of a good education. Bravo!

A final note. Gamblin has been hinting to me via Twitter that he's contemplating a sort of companion short story or novella centering on a doping scandal in the wild and wooly world of bear polo. If you're at all fond of me, or if you read this book and enjoy it, please join me in urging Gamblin to stop teasing and write the damned thing.

I lied. This is the final note. If you are e-book challenged, you can stil enjoy this one, either as a free audio podcast at the author's website or you can order a copy on dead tree HERE. It says pre-order but I got mine right away.


  1. Thanks very much for the review. I really appreciate the time you took not only reading my work, but also telling everyone about it.

    Alas, I cannot blame an iPad for my horrible "it's" problem. I just grew up wrong as far as that goes, and it never got caught in editing. However, I want you to know that I am going through the entire text, checking each instance for possessive vs. contraction usage. I don't know how long it will take, but there will be a new version out there.

    Thanks again for this!

  2. Update: my friend's ten-year-old has now read Tumbler FOUR times and seems likely to be going for a fifth very soon. There was exactly one set of books I would read over and over again, starting over as soon as finished like that when I was her age, and those were the Oz books. 'Nuff said.

  3. Kate, a wonderful review of this book thank you. I have read the book (rather listened) and really enjoyed it.
    About 6 months ago I started reading Tumbler out loud in the evenings to my older 5 (ranging in age from 6 to 13) and they all loved it. I have read many other books to them, but they always talk about Tumbler. I think partly because they can occasionally see Brand's icon go by on my twitter feed, and I get the "Dad you know the author, can you really talk to him?" But more so because I think they really enjoyed to story, as did I. I have shared it (I know pirate) with several people who all enjoyed it as least as much.
    As soon as I scratch together the very small mount to buy an e-copy of this book I will be reading that them them as well. I know I could let them listen to the podcast, I and I might let the older ones do so, but I enjoy reading it to them so I can experience it with them. Besides, it gives me an excuse to read it again.


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