Looking at the cover of Autodrome, you’d be hard-pressed to believe this is a book aimed at a primarily YA audience of petrol heads and steampunk fans (dieselpunk?), but nonetheless it’s a quick read, helped immeasurably by the sense of pace as our 15-year old protagonist races from one clue to the next in an effort to solve his father’s untimely death.
Full to bursting with funky racer names like Zar Punkstar, his main squeeze Raina Jubilique, and a whole host of others (Valentine Heart, Eight Ball, Tripster, Justice Hunter, Persia Gold, etc) puts one firmly in mind of vintage Wacky Races territory. And the comparison doesn’t stop there, with clockwork gadgetry and handy auto-folk all around, but I’ll spare you the details just now.
In brief, Zar Punkstar’s disapproving father and drug-fuelled mother have left him — like so many other youngsters in the steam-driven race-obsessed metropolis of Autodrome — with cars, girls, motor-racing, and the mysterious world of the Pro Leaguers as his only interest in life and ironically, also the only sure fire way to ‘make good’ in this world. When his estranged crazy inventor dad is murdered, Zar is determined to dig deeper to find out why, leading him and his not-so-merry band of fellow petrol heads on a crazy goose chase to collect clues to try and uncover ‘the big mystery’. Shortly after qualifying for his Pro Leaguer status, Zar is drawn into the infamous Ramrod Rally — a series of testing races that combine the best aspects of an old-fashioned Demolition Derby with a barrage of death-dealing obstacles and ridiculously testing stretches of hell-on-wheels…. With enemies in his own camp and a number of rivals outside of it, we know we’re set for an awesome ride, and in the Autodrome universe ‘twould appear the life expectancy of a Pro Leaguer and by implication all those teenage tearaways of the race circuit is very short indeed.
I don’t wish to knock the many plot-twists or the writing, as it’s a fast, fun read, and the author’s steampunk-style world of jacked up vehicles and crazy drivers is brought vividly to life throughout, but this core questing mechanic and the tenuous links therein from one clue to the next did feel mightily tidy and yet, so far-fetched, which spoiled it a bit for me.
Apart from that, I loved the varied race settings, especially when Zar finds himself in parts of the city where selected desert-style towns are ‘frozen in time’ (be it the 30s, 40s, 60s, 80s, what have you), defined inevitably by the cars and fashion of the day: a clever little device that really allows the author’s love of classic cars to shine through.
Autodrome is a quick read, and I found myself rolling through the chapters without even realising it a lot of the time, a sure sign that it’s a good investment for fans of cars and steampunk in general… and let’s be fair, how many teenagers nowadays aren’t intrigued by the thought of jumping into their first motor and taking it for a spin? And while I don’t endorse street racing or wrapping cars around lamp-posts, it’s great reading about other people doing just that!