Meilin Miranda was one of my first friends on Twitter and someone with whom I enjoy spending time in real life whenever I find myself in her home city, so it would be hard, if not impossible, for me to be objective about her work. But I'm not a book reviewer or a book blogger, so I don't have to be. So with that in mind, read on.
First of all, I demand The Machine God be immediately adapted into an anime screenplay and turned over to Hayao Miyazaki and/or Isao Takahata immediately. As in this story begs to be brought to the screen by Studio Ghibli.
The novel -- short by today's standards but packing a whole lot of everything good in its few pages -- takes place in a shared fictional universe with a lot of steampunk elements, a rich and interesting history, and a great big island floating above a sizable population center: A legend-shrouded cataclysm a thousand years ago tore a grand old city right out of the earth and flung it into the sky, where it has been ever since, casting a shadow over the gradually resettled land below and tantalizing scholars and engineers with its unattainable nearness.
Unattainable until the discovery of a semi-magical petroleum stand-in called variously "black mercury" or "ichor" allows the city below's "autogyro" flying machines to achieve the great heights necessary to mount an expedition up to the floating island. Are there people there? Are there solutions to the mystery of how that huge chunk of land decided to cheat the law of gravity? Are there artifacts to study and/or trade in, and thus make someone famous and maybe even rich?
Our hero is a charming and slightly naive academic, Adewole, master of languages old and new, collector of folklore, specialist in legends about the floating island even though he comes from a faraway land and only wound up in the Drifting Isle's shadow due to a series of mishaps and betrayals, only to embark on a life of little respect and not a little contempt from the dean and most of the rest of the university where he holds a "useless" token chair in the humanities -- taking up space and soaking up money that everybody else thinks would be better put to use endowing yet another engineering professorship at an already science/technology-heavy school.
Everybody, that is, except for the City Mother (the world of the Drifting Isle accords women a powerful socio-political position that threatens to nudge somewhat beyond equality into matriarchy, but not quite), who happens to be the one who gets to choose the team to make first contact with the denizens, if any, of the Floating Island. Someone with a gift for language, a feel for forgotten lore and a talent for uncovering the true elements of various myths and legends is just the sort such an expedition needs.
Soon Adewole and his best friend, Deviatka (an engineering professor) are exploring the ruins of the city above, getting acquainted with the struggling locals they find there, and fretting over how the dean of their university will doubtless exploit their discoveries for his own profit -- social and economic -- as he has done to Deviatka so many, many times before.
And then Adewole makes a discovery that blows even their worst and wildest worries right out of the water with its implications, its historical import and its threat, both physical and moral, to the present and the future, possibly of their entire world.
Like I said, Ms. Miranda packed a whole lot into just a few pages -- wry and pointed commentary on academic politics and the tensions between pure and applied research, the ethical implications of the quest for knowledge for its own sake, the public and private morality of holders of political and academic power, and yes, whether or not someone at some point actually managed to build a mecha so big and powerful that it could legitimately be referred to as a Machine God.
And I haven't even gotten to the best part yet, because the world of the Drifting Isle is a world in which more and more birds are turning up sentient and capable of using human language all the time. An early scene with sparrows lecturing Adewole about how if he doesn't share a bit of his pastry with him he's basically a rude selfish jerk sets the amusing and yet also deadly serious tone here. Plus there is a talking owl so wise and cool and drily funny that she knocks Bubo and Glimfeather right out of contention for for the title of Most Awesome Fictional Owl of All Time (and no, I do not consider Hedwig even to be an also-ran here, sorry, Potterniks). Owls get notions, you know.
But above all, there is Adewole, with whom you would have to be the world's biggest jerk not to fall in love with before you're even through the very first chapter. His personal history is full of heartbreak and struggle; his talents are prodigious (yet he is modest about them); his behavior when faced with a truly unique set of challenges is completely believable and completely understandable, which is all the more remarkable when one considers the cruel set of dilemmas his creator set before him. He is, in other words, a shining example of Miranda's signature sweet, deserving young male hero, whose life is circumscribed by women but who is man enough to think that's just fine and to go on and be awesome in a way that harms no one and helps many. When he meets someone whose lot in life has been orders of magnitude harder than his, he doesn't even think to compare his misfortunes to hers, just swears that he will do all in his power to find a way to make it as close to better as he can. He is, in other words, so loveable that you can't even roll your eyes at him, or hate loving him, or love hating him, or even think he's a bit too much of a Boy Scout. You just want to be his best friend. Especially since, well, spoilers.
Now I'm curious about the rest of the Drifting Isle Chronicles, which I should be getting my grubby hands on soon for being a backer for Ms. Miranda's Kickstarter to get this one published in style. Dudes, I have the best taste in Kickstarter projects.
Oh, and a little bird told me (hee!) that Ms. Miranda is going to write more books set in this universe, so HOORAY!